Remembering the books that taught us more than we ever cared to learn.
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards
There were a lot of great fantasy worlds out there when I was a kid, and like any discerning bookworm, I shopped around. I dabbled in Narnia, Platform 13, Ender Wiggin’s Battle School, Lyra’s atheist Oxford. I even dreamed up my own third-rate knock-off, called Celcia, which featured mouse-people with ponytails and a sort of lo-fi Justice League called the Magic Bicycle Girls. Someday I’ll turn it into a thinly veiled religious allegory and make millions. (Lewis, L’Engle, Pullman ― I’m looking at you.) In any case, that DIY impulse must have something to do with why, despite a surplus of capital-l Literature at my fingertips, I had to go and fall in love with a ramshackle joint like Whangdoodleland.
Does The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles belong in the kid-lit Criterion? Has anyone even read it besides me (and the select family members willing to humor me when I was eight)? Your guess is as good as mine, friends. But Whangdoodleland ― brought to us by the woman formerly known as Poppins, von Trapp, and the queen of Genovia ― was the uncontested travel destination of my youth.
The place had everything: five-legged anteaters, bread-scented flowers, a shrill little thing called a Whiffle Bird that might be the mockingjay’s nutty ancestor. Again and again I donned my metaphorical scrappy cap, joining Ben, Tom, and Lindy Potter on their mission to find the last of that very endangered species called the Whangdoodle.
Even today, a surprising amount of the mythology sticks with me. Mention the Nobel Prize and I think of Professor Savant, esteemed Whangdoodle academic and imagination theorist. Ask me to define ecstasy and I’ll point you towards the High-Behind Splintercat, eternally tumbling through a field of catnip in “an absolute dither of delight.” I know the best butterflies are Flutterbyes and that they are truly papilionaceous. I tend to picture Otto von Bismarck with a diabolical Yo-Yo just like oily prime minister Prock’s. (I’m a European history major, so this kinda comes up a lot.)
And, okay, maybe the fun is dampened by the it’s-all-in-your-head disclaimer, which feels no more satisfying here than it does when Dorothy wakes up back in black-and-white Kansas. Whangdoodleland, like Oz, has one foot perennially stuck in what today’s kids might call Muggledom. And, yes, okay, the deus ex professor that sets this imaginary round trip in motion feels, like, totally creepy in today’s world. Recap: local eccentric approaches three unchaperoned children, invites them back to his cavernous bachelor pad, enlists them in secret psychoactive “experiments” that Mummy just wouldn’t understand.
But that’s the thing ― the book is super, super uncynical. This is a world where chummy old men always have honest intentions; where the word “whangdoodle” isn’t the dorkiest thing you’ve ever heard; where make-believe adventures are no less badass than the real kind. And in a way, that’s kind of empowering ― because if a trio of bookish, thoroughly scar-free Potter children can conjure up this kind of trouble, then why the hell can’t you? For me, at least, the cotton-candy acid trip that is The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles has inspired countless Fanciful Creature-lands. While quite possibly a harbinger of deeper psychological problems, these little worlds also helped fuel my early forays into writing. The results may have been mixed (film rights to Celcia, anyone?), but my imagination got a wacky dose of color that it certainly didn’t have before.
What’s more magical than that?
—Hannah White is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. She does some of her best reading while she’s blow-drying her hair.