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Favourite books: Farmer Duck

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By Antony Lishakauthor, former teacher and writer in residence for Literacy Time PLUS (visit

Explore the benefits of teamwork and the dangers of exploitation, using the simple context of this children’s classic

Farmer Duck

Shared bedtime stories bind us together. My daughter, Emily, is now 20 and at university, but so precious were those moments spent sharing Farmer Duck that even now when I type ‘How goes the work?’ into Windows Live Messenger, I know her reply will be ‘quack’. Thanks to the gentle genius of Martin Waddell and Helen Oxenbury, that duck has become a family hero. If you have not yet fallen under this book’s spell, prepare yourself. Great picture books can be revisited again and again, but classics like this don’t wait to be reread – they continue to visit you all by themselves.


Farmer Duck is a faithful, devoted, down-trodden duck who single-wingedly runs the farm as the ‘lazy old farmer’ stays in bed munching chocolates, reading the newspaper and occasionally enquiring from his bedroom window, ‘How goes the work?’, to which the stoical bird invariably replies ‘Quack’. Concerned for their much-loved duck, the cows, sheep and chickens plot an Orwellian-type revolution and, in the dead of night, forcibly expel the fat farmer. Thereafter, they harmoniously run the farm as an animal collective.

Clucking about

The book is peppered with animal sounds, but Waddell does not need to tell us to quack sadly, moo angrily, baa enquiringly or cluck triumphantly – we do it naturally. Get the children to add the appropriate emotion to each sound as you read the book.

Ask the children to take turns being the duck and see if the rest of the group can guess the mood of the ‘quacker’ from the way that they quack. (I remember quacking ‘Happy Birthday’ to Emily’s toy duck once, although that might be taking it a bit far.)

Poem or prose?

Waddell’s crafted text is a joy to read – there is not a single surplus syllable. Point out to the children how he has used subtle rhymes to make his words sing: There once was a duck who had the bad luck and They lifted the bed and he started to shout, and they banged and they bounced the old farmer about). Talk about how important the repetition of the central How goes the work? Quack motif is. Try and find other picture books that employ these techniques.

Was it always like this?

Once a story is familiar, it is often fun to ponder what might have been happening before it all started. On the first page, when the apron-wearing duck holds the farmer’s lovingly prepared tray of food (see illustration above), there is a suggestion that their relationship was not always like this. There is even a paper cocktail umbrella in the ice cream – that has to count for something! Later on, as the animal lynch party break into the house to drive out the farmer, there is a portrait of a prouder, younger man displayed on the wall, which clearly startles the hens.

Talk about what might have brought this once competent farmer to his knees. Ask the children who they think could have taught this bird the skills required to run the farm in the first place.

Is laziness a crime?

If you really want to be subversive, you can ask your children what (apart from doing nothing) did the farmer do wrong? He does not bark angry orders at the duck; nor does he threaten it in any way. He merely enquires how the work is progressing.

Maybe the duck has to take some blame for allowing the farmer to get away with doing nothing? Perhaps if it had quacked out a little earlier, rather than accept its lot with a silent beak, the farmer might have pulled his considerable weight in a more productive way.

What if…?

The revolutionaries chase the farmer ‘down the lane… through the fields… over the hill… and he never came back’. Which is pretty final, but he had to go somewhere. Invite the children to ponder what happened when he finally stopped running. After all, he was only wearing pyjama bottoms and a cloth cap! There are some great opportunities for role play here. Encourage the children to consider how the farmer would explain his situation to any fellow farmers he might have bumped into. Ask, Would they believe him? What if he tried to sneak back to the farm to get some more clothes and he was discovered by the cow? What if, at some time in the future, he meets the now successful Farmer Duck at market? What if he sees the error of his ways, gets his act together and returns to make peace with his old animal friends? Challenge the children to explore different scenarios.

It’s up to you…

Like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are many layers to this apparently simple book: exploitation, the perils of passivity, the dangers of misplaced loyalty, and the importance of solidarity and teamwork.

You must decide how deep you want to delve. For me, the final picture of the vibrant sun-drenched farm is made all the more optimistic because of the harshness that has gone before, although I expect I will find an even deeper level of meaning if and when I read it to any future grandchildren…