chicken

Chicken love

While the last remaining chicken safe-houses with a neighbour, the wolf ruminates on chicken books for kids.

The wolf loves chickens. Unfortunately, so does a local fox. Chickens are nice animals. True, they don’t have big brains, but they put what they have to good use. They’re wonderful communicators and what they do, they do really well. Urban chickens have a tough time of it though. To get over the distress of losing a few, I’m putting together a concept for a picture book ‘in memorandum’ of my favourite chicken – a tough and characterful bird that was just that bit smarter than the rest. Here are some early sketches:

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Some of my favourite books are about chickens. And here are three of them:

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The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez

Despite not having any words, The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez deserves reading and re-reading. I still pore over each scene, enjoying the story from different perspective of each character – a bear, a white rabbit, a rooster, a fox and a chicken. Rodriguez has fashioned a pacy, deceptively simple book, with well rounded characters and evocative settings.

The first panel shows a rural idyll. A cottage of animals are going through their morning routine. But, from a nearby bush, a fox eyes the chickens greedily. On the next page a plump, white chicken is snatched…

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…and the chase begins: though forests, over mountains and across stormy seas.

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Rodriguez’s loose and warm illustrations are delightful. She conveys emotion and personality with a tiny line, an expertly placed dot. We love to examine each drawing, and each character, carefully. What are the fox’s motives? What’s the relationship between the pursuers? I found myself building background stories for all the characters: for the put-upon, serious minded bear; for the loyal and warm rabbit; and for the chauvinistic and outraged rooster.

Of course, there’s a twist at the end of this book.

As adults, we’re so trained to process the written word that often the author’s voice is in our head before we’ve had time to make sense of the pictures. What I find so freeing about wordless picture books, and particularly this one, is that they are open to personal interpretation.

Rodriguez has published three follow up books: Fox and Hen Together, Roosters Revenge and The Fishing Trip.

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Chicken Big, by Keith Graves

Lovely publisher at Scholastic Australia, Angie Masters, sent me this book last year. She knows my feelings on chickens, and on lively dialogue.

In ‘an itty-bitty coop’ a normal-sized hen lays a massive egg, from which hatches a ‘big humungous chicken’ – a chicken so humungous the other chickens are convinced this is not a chick, but maybe an elephant, or a squirrel..

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All the chickens, save the big humungous chicken, are ditzy chickens and easily confused. They’re also insensitive towards their new coop-mate – they just can’t see the big chick as their equal (though clearly this chick is quite a bit brighter than the others).

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Finally, the day comes when the humongous chick rescues all the eggs from the hungry fox. Only a chicken could be so smart, kind, warm, and brave!

This book is a really good laugh, and it’s laid out in a fun way – with multiple panels on some pages, and lots of speech bubbles showing silly interactions between silly chickens, We’ve had fun speaking the different parts of the chicken. The fun also extends to the inside and back covers (I love it when author/illustrators add that little bit extra).

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I can’t help feeling that Keith Graves was having so much fun doing this book he wasn’t ready to stop. His chicken characters embody some human characteristics so well I imagine he can’t get them to stop talking**. And we don’t want them to stop! I’m hoping they’ll appear again soon, in ‘Chicken Big II’.

You can buy Chicken Big on Amazon, and here if in Australia.

(**This reminds me of the time a few years ago, when I found a wombat hand puppet in a large second-hand store. My toddler son was playing up so I popped the wombat on my hand and made it chat to him. Reassured, my son fell asleep almost straight away. I then carried on wandering around the store, conversing with the wombat. It had a lot to say on vintage coats.)

My Little Hen Alice and Martin Provenson

This book was printed in 1973 and, though it’s out of print now it turns up now and again. The marvellous Alice and Martin Provenson had remarkably similar backgrounds, both attending the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of California at different campuses before taking work at separate animation studios (Alice at Walter Lantz Studio and Martin at Walt Disney Studios) before they finally met in 1943. They married the next year, and illustrated at least 50 picture books together over 43 years, receiving the Caldecott Medal twice.

My Little Hen is presented as an old-fashioned photo album. This static layout contrasts beautifully with the lively illustrations. The pen work is an inspiration: loose yet wonderfully planned; full of vigour but with not one unnecessary stroke. The muted sepia-based palette is gorgeous, and the key characters appear to glow – just as elements in old photographs sometimes have that shimmering quality. Look at Emily’s egg:

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Don’t eat the egg Emily! Etta will be sad.

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Of course Emily keeps the egg. The egg grows up into Neddy, whom the dog is keen on…

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The creators’ animation backgrounds are very evident in this book: the pace is perfect, the characters’ posture and expression conveying emotion with wit and simple, lively strokes; I can imagine Emily skipping and pausing, dancing and chattering to her chickens. Animals are drawn with appreciative humour: they’re real animals – they’re not anthropomorphised, and that doesn’t make them any less cute. Just look at these chicks:

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I think it’s one of my favourite books.

As mentioned, the wolf has been concocting chicken-based stories in quieter moments. Inspired by the loose, scratchy style of ‘My Little Hen’, here are some mixed-media chickens, scratched out in ink and gel pens, with coloured pencil.

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The excellent blog Playing by the Book, has a post on chicken books here.

Other favourites are: Rosie’s Walk by Pat Huggins; Hattie and the Fox by Mem Fox and Patricia Mullins; and I’m intrigued by Jan Brett’s book Cinders – a Chicken Cinderella.

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