Cluck, cluck buh-cawk!
Certain animals seem to dominate children’s literature. Surely, somewhere in the Winnie-the-Pooh/Peter Rabbit era, bears and bunnies had a meeting and divided up the territory. (“OK, you take cute and fuzzy, we’ll take clever and mischievous. Bedtime stories are up for grabs.”) Ducks muscled their way in somewhere along the line (“Make Way for Ducklings!”).
Other animals are relegated to a kind of niche genre. Elephants have their stars, of course (Babar or, of more recent vintage, Ella). So do mice (Anatole, Frederick, Miss Bianca of “The Rescuers”), though rodents inexplicably have done even better at the movies than in books. Dogs and cats feature in lots of children’s books, but that is a different -- excuse the expression -- animal; imagining the secret lives of our pets tells much about ourselves in a way that is different from telling stories about animals we don’t know so intimately.
Among children’s book enthusiasts, there are passionate collectors of chicken books. What is it about chickens? I wondered as I looked at the new crop of children’s books. What do chickens represent? Do chickens have personalities?
For background research, I went to my husband, son of a one-time chicken farmer. In his childhood, he once kept a pet chicken named Chickie Goldstein. There are stories about Chickie Goldstein, notably about the moment when the family realized the creature was not a hen, but a rooster.
“What was it like having a chicken as a pet?” I asked Patrick. “Did it follow you around, do anything special?”
He thought about it. “No, I guess keeping Chickie was like having a cat. He went his own way.”
Many children’s books set on farms manage almost entirely without chickens. In Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s sassy books about Farmer Brown’s farm, the chickens are merely pawns in Duck’s schemes. They carry Duck’s campaign signs in “Duck for President” (Atheneum/Scholastic: $16.99, ages 4-8) and provide a veil of bland innocence when Duck tricks the farm’s temporary guardian into ordering pizza for the barnyard in “Giggle, Giggle, Quack” (Simon & Schuster: $16.99, ages 4-8) with the request: “The hens prefer anchovies.”
Other authors, however, find great charm in chickens. Cookbook author Terry Golson, who celebrated the return of the egg to the ranks of health food with “The Farmstead Egg Cookbook,” gives her affection for chickens free range in her first children’s book, “Tillie Lays an Egg” (Scholastic: $16.99; ages 4-8, photographs by Ben Fink). In it, she tells the story of her own seven hens, six of whom take turns laying eggs in three nesting boxes. The seventh, the adventurous Tillie, lays her eggs while she’s out exploring. Each day Tillie lays her egg in a new spot, and it’s the job of young readers to locate the eggs in the pictures.
Illustrated with wonderfully staged photographs, the book clearly has a colorful back story. In her end note, the author writes that the chickens “were given too many treats during the photo shoots and now they are quite spoiled and demanding.” You can see immediately that for Golson, chickens have a retro appeal, as evidenced by the props used to dress the sets -- lots of chicken-themed collectibles, from tea towels to toys -- as well as by the chickens’ names: Edwina, Prudence, Buffy, Marge, Ginger and Tillie. Only Twinkydink has a name you couldn’t find on the preschool yard, where every kid nowadays seems to have been named for grandparents either countrified or from the Old Country.
An intrepid hen is also the heroine of “Louise: The Adventures of a Chicken” (HarperCollins: $17.99. Ages 4-8), written and illustrated by kid-lit stars Kate DiCamillo (“The Tale of Desperaux,” “Because of Winn-Dixie”) and Harry Bliss (“Diary of a Worm,” “Which Would You Rather Be?”). The inherent contradiction between “intrepid” and “hen” lies at the heart of this story, which begins: “Louise longed for adventure. She left the henhouse and went to sea, where the water was deep and dark.” At each dangerous turn of the story, Louise’s heart “beat fast within her feathered breast. Here, at last, was adventure!” At the conclusion of each escapade -- out to sea! off with the circus! kidnapped at a bazaar! -- she returns home to her more sedate sisters and “the deep and peaceful sleep of the true adventurer.” It’s easy to see the appeal of the chicken who is not chicken: How grand is the wide world when there is a cozy nest to return to! The encouragement to explore, with the assurance that we’ll come home safe, is one of the deepest reasons we turn to children’s literature.
Whether chickens are necessarily chicken -- cowardly -- was never more amusingly explored than in Tricia Tusa’s 1986 book, “Chicken” (Macmillan: out of print). When Fran Moran brings home some fresh farm eggs for breakfast, she’s amazed to see one hatch. She names the chick after her late uncle, Dooley Fenton III, and he becomes her best friend. Dooley has no idea that he is anything other than Fran’s companion, until he grows up and everyone starts saying it’s obvious that he’s a chicken. He looks the word up in the dictionary: “afraid, timid . . .” How many of us have been tripped up by not reading the entire dictionary entry? Slowly Dooley sinks into a depression, the main feature of which is that he becomes fearful: “He perspired heavily around other animals and fainted on hearing loud noises.” Fran is perplexed by her friend’s decline, until one day the necessity of sticking up for Fran rouses Dooley from his funk, and the whole story spills out. This lovely tale could replace a raft of psychology textbooks.
There are numerous literary roosters, like Charles, the braggart in the “Freddy the Pig” series. But loud, vain roosters have a reputation quite separate from chickens, who represent motherliness as strongly as their mates represent heedlessness. In how many other species do the different genders have such different metaphoric qualities? The pride of peacocks, for example, isn’t balanced by a correspondingly poetic modesty in peahens.
Motherliness is the chickenly quality that drew the attention of Garth Williams, who started his children’s book career illustrating E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” in 1943. In “The Chicken Book” (1946), he uses an irresistible rhyme pattern to show how the mother hen teaches her chicks to fend for themselves: “Said the third little chicken, with a sharp little squeal, ‘I wish I could find some nice yellow meal.’ . . . ‘Now see here,’ said the mother, from the green garden patch, ‘If you want any breakfast, just come here and scratch!’ ”
For every good-mother story, there’s a bad-mother story, and that’s what Lisa Campbell Ernst tells in “Zinnia and Dot” (Viking: $16.99, ages 4-8), a tale of two hens who lose their eggs to a weasel while they squabble over whose chicks will be more beautiful. They both claim the one surviving egg, but “sharing was not something that either Zinnia or Dot did well.” The illustration of both plump hens squeezing their bottoms together on the box of straw is one of the great images in children’s chicken literature. By the time the weasel returns to the henhouse, the two quarrelsome chickens have learned a thing or two about sharing the work of raising a chick, and they repel the intruder together. Off goes the threesome into the sunset: “Never before was a baby chick so loved, growing up with not one, but two mother hens.”
The henhouse is not always a cozy domestic haven. As the film, “Chicken Run,” reminded us, many chickens are raised in captivity. One of the great tales of dreaming, working and struggling for freedom is the German children’s story, “Henrietta and the Golden Eggs” by Hanna Johansen, illustrated by Käthi Bhend, translated from German by John S. Barrett (David R. Godine). Henrietta lives in a filthy, stinky chicken house where “each chicken had just enough room for its feet, but no more.” “When I’m big,” Henrietta announces, “I’m going to lay golden eggs.” The big chickens laugh at her: “Hahahaha!” Then they need to cough. But Henrietta is undaunted (“First I’m going to learn to sing!”) and begins scratching an opening in the wall of the chicken house.
After numerous escapes -- all of which create havoc for the workers on the chicken farm -- Henrietta has not quite learned to sing, swim or fly. Despite the derision of her fellow chickens, however, she has managed to secure their freedom to roam in the yard, since the farm managers have given up trying to corral the escaped birds. When it comes time for her to lay her first egg, all the chickens watch her closely: Will it be golden? When it comes out, lovely, round and brown, they point out that they were right all along: She can’t lay golden eggs. “Henrietta laughed at all of them and said: ‘Did you really believe that a chicken could lay golden eggs?’ ” The gorgeous woodblock prints that illustrate this book underline the theme of escape by breaking free of the picture frame in many ways.
The idea of golden eggs traditionally represents the industriousness of poultry and the great wealth they grow. “One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Difference” by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes (Kids Can Press: $18.95, ages 5-10), tells how one small hen makes a difference to the family of a boy in Ghana. The book includes information on the organizations that support micro-loans on the model of the Grameen Bank, for which Dr. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. It’s a great introduction to small-scale economics.
Olivier Dunrea, a creator of exquisite and idiosyncratic children’s books, has written an entire small novel, “Hanne’s Quest” (Philomel: $16.99, ages 9-12), about a small chicken who saves her mistress’s farm. The loyal chicken undertakes a great deal of arduous travel and suffering to develop the legendary skill of producing golden eggs.
Have we covered every chickenly feature? There is, of course, the just-because-chickens-are-funny category of story, of which the classic is Daniel Pinkwater’s brilliant children’s novel, “The Hoboken Chicken Emergency” (Aladdin: $4.99, ages 4-8). In this story, a boy sent out for a Thanksgiving turkey is bullied into buying a live, 266-pound chicken (also named Henrietta; I suppose it’s an obvious chicken name). Complications, as you might imagine, ensue.
Just because chickens are funny is the reason that our last book has its title, “Chicken Cheeks” by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Simon & Schuster: $15.99, ages 3-7). It’s not a book about chickens at all, but a silly book about the many varied words for the gluteus maximus. Since the feathered chicken rump leads the pack in humor, the chicken gets top billing, followed by hounddog heinie, kangaroo keister and gnu wazoo, ending many uproarious, Kevin-Hawkes-illustrated pages later with the bumblebee bum.
For a real-time look at Terry Golson’s chickens, go to her website.
Sonja Bolle’s “Word Play” column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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