by Julia Marshall, Founder of Gecko Press
We are celebrating the life of Wolf Erlbruch, who died this week
Duck, Death and the Tulip is a pivotal book for Gecko Press, one of the books I am most proud to have on our list.
I never met Wolf, but I felt I did know him just a little, because he wrote such a lovely email. I once asked him if he would allow a classroom of design students to try to adapt Duck, Death and the Tulip into a digital format, as a class project, not for publication. He said that would be fine if they could “Please be kind to the Duck.”
This phrase has become embedded in the Gecko Press vernacular, in the way that some sentences become part of a family shared understanding. We all need to be kind to the ducks—to look after ourselves and the people we care for.
Wolf told me off when I forwarded an invitation to a writer’s festival, even though he had already said no once before. “Just because you ask me nicely a second time does not mean I will change my mind,” he wrote, inviting me to coffee instead at his home in Berlin, which I am sorry I never did.
I was originally sent Ente, Tod und Tulpe by a very good publisher friend of mine in Frankfurt. I thought it had a lovely cover. And then I saw the insides and had the same response that many people have when they see it for the first time, before they get to know the duck, and before they realise that the job of Death is not to take Duck away, but to be there for her when she needs him. And of course, Duck is also kind to Death, which is not something he has experienced before.
Author Kate De Goldi encouraged me to publish Duck, Death and the Tulip when I showed her the German version, and I am grateful to her for giving me that courage. (I have only just realised the connection between courage and encourage. Another Duck moment!) It was beautifully translated into English by Catherine Chidgey, who had been in Berlin on a DAAD academic scholarship. Penelope Todd was the editor and Jill Livestre of Archetype the book designer. It remains one of Gecko Press’s bestselling books, and is now in its 11th edition.
When Duck, Death and the Tulip was first published in English in 2008, 70 librarians in New Zealand went on the librarian listserv with comments ranging from: “Does anyone else hate this book?” to stories of children taking it to the playground and home to their families. My father thought only adults, more conscious of their own mortality, would be troubled by the book. He said Death is something that happens outside children, not to them. My mother said: “Can you give us something a bit more cheery next time please, Julia.” My sister sagely noted that as you read the book many times, you begin to see how kind Death is, and how he is very comforting in his little dressing gown.
The book changes as you read and reread it, and it changes us as readers too.
I have changed my own attitude to mortality as a result of Duck, Death and the Tulip. I find it very interesting that a book can change as you reread it and that the book can change the people who read it too. We bring much of ourselves to a story.
Duck, Death and the Tulip is a very powerful, warm, life-affirming, magnificent book, from a magnificent man.