Ralph’s Secret Weapon

As I dig out from the end-of-the-semester crunch, I see that I have started quite a few blog posts in the last couple of months without finishing any of them. So while I get my act back together, here’s another repost from a previous incarnation of my site:


 

Ralph's Secret Weapon
Steven Kellogg
Dial Books for Young Readers, 1999
 

I don’t normally read children’s books, but Ralph’s Secret Weapon merited an exception. The book’s main character is unique (as far as I can tell) amongst characters in children’s books: Ralph plays the bassoon.

I don’t recall exactly how I became aware of the existence of this book. I think that it may have been via Google’s relatively new and wonderful Book Search. In any case, once I learned of its existence, I set about trying to obtain a copy. Ralph’s Secret Weapon is out of print, but the UW Cooperative Children’s Book Center owns a copy. A few clicks of the mouse later, I’d arranged for the book to be sent to UW’s Memorial Library, where I could easily retrieve it.

When the e-mail message arrived announcing that Kellogg’s book was waiting for me, I set out for the circulation desk with an air of anticipation. I retrieved the diminutive yet colorful volume and eagerly set about reading it. I was overjoyed to find that Ralph’s bassoon playing is not merely a glossed-over detail; it is a main component of the plot. Kellogg’s cartoony bassoon appears in ten out of the twenty-seven illustrations (plus the cover), with Ralph carrying the instrument in its case in three more. But, as I reached the last page, my utter delight turned to a bitter disappointment, and then to a disbelieving anger.

“Why the sudden change?” you might ask. Allow me to provide a summary of the plot:
Ralph is sent off to his aunt’s house for the summer. His aunt greet him with a cake and a bassoon. That afternoon, Ralph has his first bassoon lesson. The teacher tells him that he’s not cut out for the bassoon, but Ralph’s aunt sees great possibilities for him as a snake charmer. She takes Ralph to a snake charming competition (coincidentally being held in town that very night), which he easily wins. Ralph’s Aunt sees greater possibilities for him, and calls up the navy, which is being terrorized by a sea serpent. Ralph goes to sea aboard a destroyer, and starts playing his bassoon. Sure enough, the sea serpent is drawn to the sound. But, he eats the bassoon and grabs Ralph. Luckily, Ralph has brought along a secret weapon (which turns out to be his aunt’s cake) that causes the serpent to regurgitate Ralph, his bassoon, and a bunch of other people who’d been recently swallowed. Ralph and his aunt return home, where Ralph announces that he’s giving up the bassoon forever. His aunt doesn’t object, and Ralph spends the rest of the summer goofing off.

Wait.

What?

GIVING UP THE BASSOON FOREVER?

What kind of message is this sending to children? That music isn’t fun and if you aren’t instantly good at it, you should quit and spend your time actually having fun instead? My first reading of the book was an extremely fast one, so I took the time to read and look at the illustrations more closely. This only deepened my dissatisfaction.

In the illustration in which Ralph’s aunt sets him up in her music room, the book she places on the music stand is titled “Dreary Drills and Tedious Exercises for the Bassoon” (Music is boring!). In Ralph’s first – and only – lesson with Maestro Preposteroso (Musicians are ridiculous!), the teacher tells Ralph that he has “no talent whatsoever” (Either you’re an instant virtuoso or a no-talent hack! Practice is worthless!). In the end, Ralph gives up the bassoon forever, with no objections or positive reinforcement from his aunt (If at first you don’t succeed, quit and go play with your dog!).

It’s very disappointing that the lone children’s book featuring the bassoon contains such negative messages about the instrument specifically and music in general. Shame on you, Mr. Kellogg. I’m glad that Ralph’s Secret Weapon is out of print – this limits the number of young minds it can warp.

  • David Nicholas

    September 22nd, 2014

    Reply

    If it makes you feel any better, this was one of my favorite books as a child, and it got me fascinated with the bassoon. Fascinated enough to track down lots of bassoon concertos, at least; not nearly fascinated enough to tear me away from my safe and non-threatening euphonium.

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