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.




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


    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.

  • Cassandra

    March 16th, 2016


    My old Maderas Bas­soon Quar­tet used Ralph’s Secret Weapon a few times for small children’s con­certs, with an adjusted end­ing of course, and a con­tra­bas­soon as the ser­pent. Our ver­sion was much more fun. 😉

    Another children’s book, “Zin, Zin, Zin a Vio­lin” has a nice rep­re­sen­ta­tion of bas­soon, as well as other instru­ments. It’s a count­ing book more than a story book, but still fun.

    • David A. Wells

      March 19th, 2016


      Cool, I’ll have to check that one out!

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