It’s difficult to describe the charm of “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles” without using the word “quirky.” It’s even more difficult to leave out “original,” “creative” and “zany.” But none of these can fully capture a work that is so much more than a children’s fantasy novel.
As if 60 years of acting and three Academy Awards nominations weren’t enough to seal her legacy, Julie Andrews — Mary Poppins herself — has also written one of the greatest children’s books of all time. In the spirit of “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” “Whangdoodles” creates a lovable and bizarre world of High-Behind Splintercats, living motorcycles and the ineffable Whiffle Bird.
The story follows three children — Ben, Tom and Lindy Potter — on a journey with the brilliant Professor Savant to a magical world resembling Peter Pan’s Neverland on LSD. On the trip, Lindy gets kidnapped by a huge cat, the children travel on the Jolly Boat — a vessel fueled by bad jokes and uncontrollable giggling — and Tom learns to always be polite — even to the Swamp Gaboons, who insult his mother and otherwise bait him. But through it all, their goal is clear. They must reach the castle and see what few others have seen before: the last really great Whangdoodle.
“Whangdoodles” borrows the frame of English children’s literature in the style of E. Nesbit and others, and then tosses in some ecstasy and tells it to get out on the dance floor. In many ways, it’s more like “Alice in Wonderland” than “Five Children and It,” far surpassing the other classics in its genre with sheer creativity.
But Edwards succeeds in more than just the book’s amazing originality; her true triumph lies in the subtle harmony between good and evil. In many children’s books, the story is exasperatingly bland. No child in his or her right mind wants to read a book about perfect children and their wonderful, danger-free adventure. Incorporating horrifyingly scary and invincible villains, however, isn’t an effective recipe for success on the juvenile market either.
Edwards achieves a balance. Not only are the protagonists of “Whangdoodle” flawed and the bad guys vulnerable, it’s often unclear who’s on which side. Sometimes good isn’t quite as good as it first appears, and sometimes the villains aren’t as villainous as they seem. More than a physical journey, “Whangdoodles” is an emotional puzzle that, as soon as it seems predictable, reverses readers’ expectations.
In the end, “Whangdoodles” is a story of hope, but in a very specific sense: Here, technology can solve even the most dire and bizarre problems. As Professor Savant imports culture tubes, a dissecting microscope and a laser beam into Whangdoodleland, Edwards makes a statement — in 1974 — about hope for technology and hope through technology. In the end, the answer to all of the problems of this mystical land lies in a mixture of scientific advances and human imagination.
“The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles” shouldn’t be classified strictly as children’s literature. It represents a freedom of imagination, creativity and relativism that appeals to a much larger audience than those who are 12 and under.