Review: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

I devoured 90% of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly in just over an hour, then took months to read its final pages. My procrastination was based purely on the fact that I knew those last pages would make me ugly cry. Which is to say that this book was both wonderful and utterly gut-wrenching.

The Hen (which is what I’ll call it hereafter) is the English translation of a South Korean bestseller by author Sun-Mi Hwang. It’s fair to say that my knowledge of the South Korean publishing industry is sorely and vastly lacking, but this book, which has sold more than two million copies, appears to have been something of a phenomenon: It was an instant bestseller upon publication, remained a bestseller for 10 years, and in addition to inspiring a play, a musical, and a comic, has been turned in South Korea’s to-date highest-grossing animated film.

Better yet, its author’s story is wonderful: Sun-Mi Hwang was too poor to attend school, but thanks to a kind teacher entrusting her with a key, she was able to go into the classroom and read books outside school hours. Sun-Mi Hwang’s gone on to become one of South Korea’s most beloved and award-winning authors.

So it’s basically an all-round feel-good story.

I can’t actually recall how I stumbled across The Hen. Because it was a stumble. Regardless, I ordered the book because I just figured its subject matter about a hen who glimpses the possibility of a life beyond being forced to lay eggs for humans was right up my alley. (Full disclosure: I adopt ex-battery hens, and my PhD concentrated on raising awareness about the cruel practices relating to battery and other intensive, environmentally destructive farming.)

The book’s opening pages introduce us to Sprout, the hen, and her decision to not lay one more egg. But the farmers view her body as valuable only as long as it produces eggs. Because her body will not—in fact, cannot—produce any more eggs, the farmers remove her from the coop not to grant her freedom but to kill her.

Sprout survives against all odds, and The Hen, which contains similarly powerful stories and evoked in me similarly strong emotions as Charlotte’s Web, sees the equally compassionate and gutsy Sprout encounter all manner of farm and wild animals from a duck to a rooster to a dog to a weasel. And, like in Charlotte’s Web, you know the story is going to end sadly.

At a mere 134 pages long, including adorable images that reduce the text-based page count by almost a quarter, The Hen is a book you can knock over in a couple of hours (unless, like me, you spend a bit of time avoiding the inevitable). And what I will say is that the final pages didn’t destroy me quite as much as I expected. They were nuanced and considered and presented a fitting end to the tale.

So I’d definitely recommend The Hen, especially if you ever loved Charlotte’s Web (or even films like Babe). It’s also a timely reminder to me to explore books by writers from other and often non-English-speaking countries.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.