The mysterious appearance in October 2018 of a rainbow-hued bird in Manhattan’s Central Park inspired Bette Midler’s The Tale of the Mandarin Duck: A Modern Fable, a picture book featuring full-color photographs by Michiko Kakutani and black-and-white illustrations by Joana Avillez. Released this week by Random House with a 100,000-copy print run, the book underscores the power of an extraordinary creature to bring city dwellers together and to focus on the natural beauty around them rather than on their cell phones.
Kakutani’s photos laid the groundwork for the project. This longtime regular visitor to Central Park, who told PW that “photography has been a hobby since my days as a failed art student, and the days of dark rooms and Kodak film,” discovered the mandarin duck one day as she was walking across Central Park. “There were hundreds of people at the pond near Central Park South,” she said. “Kids, parents, tourists, folks in business suits and running clothes—all gathered at the water’s edge, peering intently at this small, brilliantly colored duck who was swimming alongside the mallards and Canadian geese.”
The newcomer was so dazzling that some onlookers could not believe he was real, Kakutani noted, recalling that one boy wondered if the duck ran on lithium or solar-powered batteries, “while his mother explained nature’s ability to invent creatures that exceed our imaginations. People were so excited about the duck that they forgot their busy schedules and their buzzing phones, and chatted happily among themselves, marveling at the beauty of this bird and the mystery of his arrival.”
Dinner and a Book
The idea for The Tale of the Mandarin Duck, Midler’s first children’s book in more than 20 years and Kakutani’s first ever, was hatched at a 2018 Thanksgiving dinner hosted by mutual friends of the two. The entertainer (recipient of multiple Grammy, Emmy, Tony, Golden Globe, and American Comedy Awards) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic were seated next to each other, and the conversation turned to the visiting duck—native to the Far East—that was enthralling New Yorkers.
When she passed her phone around the table to share the photos she had taken, Kakutani said, “Bette was instantly captivated and said she had an idea for a story.” The photographer was startled to receive, within days, an email from Midler with a picture-book text included. “She had written out the entire story—almost word for word what appears in the book!” she said. “The tale of the duck’s visit to New York and his magical effect on people seemed to have come to her in a flash.”
After taking some additional photos of Central Park to accompany Midler’s text, Kakutani turned to her friend Maya Mavjee, president and publisher of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, for advice. Mavjee put her in touch with Random House Children’s Books president and publisher, Barbara Marcus, who then contacted executive v-p Mallory Loehr, who offered the book a publishing home. “Mallory, with art director Nicole de las Heras, helped us turn our words and photos into an actual book,” Kakutani said. “Without their wisdom and support, The Tale of the Mandarin Duck would not exist.”
Loehr was immediately impressed by Midler’s “natural storytelling voice” and Kakutani’s “range and depth as a photographer.” She has fond memories of the collaborators’ pre-pandemic visits to her office to work on the project together. “They are both such wonderful and unique people, and it was incredibly special to see them both so engaged in the book and so passionate about its message,” she said. “It is so important for children and adults to look up from their phones and see the world around them. And the fact that this extraordinary duck made them do that is really transformative.”
And It’s a Wrap
The editor noted that Avillez’s line art, depicting Manhattanites who are mesmerized by their screens suddenly shifting their attention to the alluring duck, is a key component of the book. “Since this is very much a story about people, I realized that, in addition to Michi’s wonderful duck- and landscape-centric photos, the book needed to show New Yorkers in a way that is both sophisticated and kid-friendly,” Loehr said. “Joana did a wonderful job finding that balance in her illustrations, which have the feel of New Yorker cartoons.”
Midler, in a statement, expressed similar sentiments, noting, “I am so delighted with the way this project turned out. I have known Michi for years, but I never knew her as a photographer, and when I saw her pictures, I knew there was a story there. It came to me practically overnight: the duck that had enchanted an entire city. I wanted to memorialize his visit and let readers know that the natural world is full of creatures just like him—if we only take the time to raise our eyes and actually see them.”
Much to the chagrin of many, the mandarin duck has not returned to Central Park since departing in spring 2019, yet Kakutani reported that the recent arrival of another feathered phenomenon has uplifted park visitors’ spirits: a snowy owl, a species that hasn’t been spotted in the park in 130 years. “Many New Yorkers have flocked to the park—in the midst of the pandemic and 18 inches of snow—in an effort to catch a glimpse of this owl,” she said. “Like the mandarin duck, he is a symbol of resilience and hope and the possibility of change, and offers the opportunity to take part in communal moments that have become so rare in the last year.”
The Tale of the Mandarin Duck: A Modern Fable by Bette Midler, photographs by Michiko Kakutani, illustrations by Joana Avillez. Random House, $18.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-593-17676-4