Chicken Cheeks

Chicken CheeksI took a punt ordering children’s picture book Chicken Cheeks while on my everlasting quest to find great books about chickens. I am, after all, far from being in the book’s target audience.

It was the title and the cover image that sold me. I mean, who can go past the words ‘chickens’ and ‘cheeks’ accompanied by an image of a chicken standing on a moose and staring back at us through what I call (technical term) ‘fluffy pants’?

I knew my punt had paid off when I saw the inside flap of the dustcover. It reads: ‘This is a story with a beginning, a middle, and a whole lot of ends’. It appears I ordered a book about bums. Animal bums, to be precise.

I can’t reveal the plot without ruining the end-of-book payoff, but I will say the book features animals standing atop each other. This, of course, brings animals’ bottoms into close proximity to the heads of the animals on which they’re standing. Which makes the book sound far less G-rated than it actually is. Trust me, this book is safe for kids.

From moose caboose to penguin patootie to turkey tushy to hound dog heinie to polar bear derriere to, obviously, chicken cheeks, you’ll find yourself smiling at the terminology and the accompanying brightly coloured, brilliantly anthropomorphised animal illustrations. There’s even arguably some crossfit mockery (although I could be reading too much into this—I consider crossfit and its attendant carryings on ridiculous, but for all I know, this book was already published before the authors knew about the ‘sport’ and any reference is purely coincidental).

The other animals I share my home with—bees—also feature, making this a doubly suitable and successful chance purchase. But again, I can’t say any more without giving too much away.

What I will say is that I’m endlessly fascinated about where authors get ideas for such books. Even more so that they’ve then been able to get a publisher and bookseller and audience member like me to help them realise that idea. But I should probably be less surprised. Bums and farts are eternally interesting, whether you’re a sprouting child or a fully grown adult. (I believe The Day My Bum Went Psycho, for example, is a perennial bestseller.)

The Blue Day BookIt reminds me of my creative writing university lecturer once telling us budding, undergrad writers that we should forget about trying to write the great Australian novel. His frustration was that The Blue Day Book, a gift book about frogs accompanied by pithy quotes (or something—my memory is hazy and I’m less than motivated to go read it to clarify details) had sold (and continued to sell) an absolute motza.

He meant this is a bleak warning, which we all duly noted (I mean, why else would I still remember that out all these years on?). On one level I find that bookselling information as depressing as my lecturer intended. On another, I find it quite freeing. It reminds me there’s more than one way to write a book, and more than one type of book people clearly like reading. I say the more the merrier to encourage reading full stop. Which prompts the question to which I have no sales-data answer: Frog-themed quote books are clearly sought after. Surely, though, books about bums and farting would sell more?

Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken

Louise, the Adventures of a ChickenMy chicken-themed (‘chooken’) book search and blogging continues, with today’s entry one about an adventurous chooken named the unchookenly name of Louise*.

The hardcover illustrated children’s book I picked up, Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken, is written by Kate DiCamillo (better known to us for such titles as The Tale of Despereaux) and illustrated by Harry Bliss.

With bright white feathers, oval-shaped, curiosity- and emotion-imbued eyes, and a red comb (or as I prefer to call it: ‘woggle’), Louise is a free-ranging farm chooken with a taste for adventure. In some interviews on other sites, DiCamillo has reportedly described her feathered protagonist as ‘insouciant and unflappable’, but also ‘clueless’.

Throughout the 40-ish page, four-chapter book, Louise: boards a ship and sets sail, where she finds herself captured by pirates; joins the circus; and visits a bazaar. That is, she touches on the kinds of subjects and themes we’ve come to know from other children’s books. Which kind of disappointed me—where’s the surprise?

This is the part of the review where I probably begin to sound like the children’s book grinch.

Not being in the 4–8-years-old age bracket, I’m obviously not the target audience, but I have to say I found the stories a little two-dimensional. Key details are skimmed over or not at all explored as we hurtle suddenly to the stop of a story and the start of an unrelated one.

For example, the first chapter, about sailing and pirates, ends quite darkly without much true climax and certainly no explanation or build-up, and we’re immediately sent off to explore the circus. That then propels us into the next chapter, again without any satisfactory tying up of loose ends or even growth marginally achieved by said main character.

I also have to say Louise’s heart beating too fast in her feathered breast is a go-to phrase gone too a little too often. That’s not a phrase that should be used more than once or twice in a short book that contains a maximum of three sentences on each page. Where was the editor? I found myself thinking more than once.

But I also realise I’m critiquing this book with adult eyes, and it would be perfectly enjoyable for those for whom it is actually intended. Visually arresting, Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken is one you can pore over for plenty of time, and Bliss has wrought Louise as an incredibly adorable, expression-filled chooken.

The wit and anthropomorphic accuracy with which he conveys Louise’s emotions makes taking in the pages, if not necessarily the words, well worth doing. His depiction of a plucky (sorry—chooken puns are harder to avoid than you might think) Louise are top notch, and without a doubt are the book’s strength. Seriously, the chooken-out-of-canon sketch is fab.

DiCamillo often includes bleaker elements in her books, and this one adheres to that rule. Louise is in genuine danger a number of times, even if she is naively oblivious to it. Two out of three of those times, it’s because of humans who have less-than-honourable intentions for her. I initially found the darker tones unsettling and not what I was after, but in retrospect I do appreciate them—too often children’s books gloss over the realities of what happens to animals at human hands.

While I’m not sure if DiCamillo is trying to make an animal liberation or ethical statement (and I can’t find information about it online), either way she includes subtle reference to freedom—or rather, chickens’ more common entire lack of it. Louise is privileged enough to be a chicken free to range and make up her mind about where she’d like to go and what she’d like to do.

Late in the book—and when we least expect it, I might add—she finds herself trapped in a cage with other hens who haven’t had a taste for such freedom. When she breaks them out through her ingenious beak-maneuvering skills, they take tentative pecks at the ground, not dissimilar to they way battery hens do if they are ‘fortunate’ enough to experience sunlight and standing on the ground for the first time in their lives.

I have to admit I’ve read some other reviews on the internets that say what I’ve been thinking: the book’s not quite up to DiCamillo’s usual standard. But I should reiterate that I’m far, far older than its main readership so my critique could be wide of the mark. It might just be on the money for its intended readers (and have I mentioned Bliss’ anthropomorphised depictions of Louise are fantastic?).

 

*What constitutes a chooken name I’m not really sure—perhaps grandmotherly names, although I’m not sure how that came to be or why it’s the dominant naming convention. Thoughts?

The Problem With Chickens/Chookens

Louise The Adventures of a ChickenAnyone who even vaguely knows me knows I recently adopted some former battery hens. (If by some fluke you’ve missed it, you can follow along via the #OperationChooken hashtag.)

We’re coming up to celebrating one year of Randall and Coo (as I’ve named them) being cage-free (on 3 October it’ll be one year with me, but they were rescued roughly three weeks before I met them).

For almost a year now, I’ve been trying to find some chicken-related—‘chooken’-related—books to devour, only to find there’s either not a lot out there or my research skills are rubbish. It’s likely more the latter, but either way, I’ve come to realise chookens feature quite a bit in children’s books.

Some books I found I was familiar with, many more not. That may be because I don’t have children or it may be just that I never encountered the books when I was a kid.

The books I will shortly ingest include Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken and Henny Penny, the latter of which reportedly aims to set the record straight about chookens thinking the sky is falling in—that’s apparently a misnomer put about by foxes. I’ll also soon be reading the similarly titled Henny, which is about a chooken who has arms instead of wings.

The first chooken book to arrive in the post, though, was Bruce McMillan’s The Problem with Chickens. I’d be inclined to complete that statement with such things as:

  • they’re so adorable it’s impossible to concentrate on work or study while you’re hanging out with them so you’re behind on just about everything you’re supposed to be doing
  • they’re indiscriminate poopers, and especially like pooping places that aren’t grass and are therefore more difficult to clean up
  • they’re impossibly perky morning people, which poses challenges for those of us who are entrenched night owls
  • they’re smarter than we give them credit for and they’ll have you under their thumb and running around organising them treats and visits to the neighbours’ gardens for a variety of bug and worm exploration before you can say ‘cunning, cute chooken’.

McMillan’s characters experience something similar, with their adopted chookens behaving less like chookens and more like ladies, following the protagonists around and delightfully mimicking their every behaviour.

HennyThe problems come when the chookens stop laying. (I’m trying not to think too hard about the parallels with the real world that saw my chookens, Randall and Coo, no longer considered useful under these conditions, and how my adopting them was the only difference between them being alive and free now and being sent to cruel slaughter.)

The story then revolves around the protagonists taking innovative steps to encourage the chookens to lay again (I won’t ruin the surprise, although I’m not sure I feel it made a lot of sense). All the while, the narrative is complemented by Icelandic illustrator Gunnella’s pictures, which simultaneously depict the chookens as beautiful, whimsical, and of unique personalities. Those illustrations also put my amateur chooken stick drawings to shame (and no, I won’t post a pic here for comparison).

The Problem With Chickens is adorable enough, but it didn’t blow my mind in quite the way I’d hoped. So I’m putting it out there: Can you recommend some chooken-themed books I’d be keen to read? Preferably happy-ish ones because I’m already more informed about the horrors of factory farming than anyone would ever really want or need to be. That said, if there’s one you feel is a must-read, please feel free to mention it…

 

Operation Chooken

Reinventing the Chicken CoopI’ve been absent from blogging for a bit not because I didn’t have a billion books I wanted to write about, but because I’ve been buried in an ever-deepening sea of study. I’ve surfaced now, having passed some crucial milestones.

I’d like to say I’m feeling fresh and perky, but I’m really just feeling wholly exhausted and comprehensively relieved. Not to mention absolutely itching to get back into reading and blogging about the books I’ve been putting aside in favour (for want of a better term) of academic texts.

At the top of the pile are books about chickens—referred to as the more fun ‘chookens’ from here on in.

About six months ago I adopted two former battery hens—two chookens of the 43 billion chookens in the world. Randall and Coo came to me via Operation Chooken, a long-running campaign I’d waged for years against my increasingly worn-down parents.

It involved me desperate to rescue some battery hens from captivity and certain slaughter and involved my parents (still haunted by finding hens not completely killed by foxes years before that fitted through gaps that didn’t exist) far less enthusiastic for me to do so. Dealing with the aftermath of fox-induced deaths, not to mention the initial pen and run assembly, would fall heavily on my father’s shoulders. And he already had a busy schedule and plans to retire.

But, he relented and built a much-admired pen and run, and my world now revolves around Randall and Coo and their incredible spirits. They’re damaged chickens who had an unspeakably horrendous start to life, but who amaze me daily at their courage and willingness to trust me. Suffice to say, if you follow my Instagram feed (@girlcalledfred) or the hashtags #OperationChooken or #Chookens), you could be forgiven for thinking I’m a little obsessed. In the best possible way.

Roo-StarBecause we’d had chookens before, I didn’t do a lot of reading up before Randall and Coo arrived. You could say I’m doing it all in reverse now, scouring the interwebs for chooken information. Next on my reading lists are definitely going to be:

Reinventing the Chicken Coop, a book a few people have suggested I present to my pen-building father for his next birthday/Christmas/significant present-receiving day. Quite a few people have asked, based on the impressiveness of his pen- and run-building prowess. Methinks he needs some time away from pen building, but don’t worry, I have grand extension plans ready to table when I think he’ll be amenable to them.

In retrospect, the Backyard Chickens Guide to Coops and Tractors would have been a handy reference before we assembled something. The pen we have is very good, but as with anything, it’s only once you start using it that you think: It would be great if it was just/did just…I’m going to buy it for pointers for the next chooken shed I plan to scam my father to build.

I was mocked heartily by friends when I was shocked to discover that chookens lay just about every day, not monthly, as I’d anticipated. This children’s book, Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones might prove a handy, accessible text for me (and any kids I introduce to Randall and Coo).

Roo-Star, the Smartest Chicken in the Coop looks an interesting read, albeit one I’m not going to deny could be for the wrong reasons. Is it normalising that chookens should live in (factory) farms, with humans determining what’s ‘best’ for them? I’ll have to read this and see (stay tuned for an outraged post if this is the case).

GoblinproofingI’ve no idea if it’s a chooken-themed book or if chookens just happen to be the jumping-off point, but Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop is likely an intriguing read. In 2013 it won the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year. Its blurb reads:

Plagued by pixies, goaded by goblins or bothered by gnomes? Help is on the way! Help is here. This is the essential primer for banishing the dark fairy creatures that are lurking in the dark corners and crevices of your life. In this charming guide, ‘fairy hunter’ Reginald Bakeley offers practical instructions to clear your home and garden of goblins and banish them forever! In Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop readers will discover:

  • The most surprising weapon to use when hunting gnomes
  • What absinthe drinking has to do with strawberry gardening
  • Why a garden fumigator may come in handy on evenings at the pub
  • Why a toy-merchant, a butcher and a freemason are among your best allies in the fight against the fey.

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop is the only complete manual on how to identify, track, defend and, if needed, destroy those bothersome brownies, goblins, dwarves, scheming flower-fairies and other nasty members of the fairy realm.

Alright, it’s probably got nothing to do with chookens, but it sounds hilarious. And it beat out some stiff competition to win that award.

9780852652350Finally, I’ll be tackling Chicken Coops for the Soul just as soon as I can get my hands on it. Clearly a play on the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, it documents the tale of comprehensively fallen in love with these fascinating, intelligent, extraordinary creatures:

When Julia Hollander agreed to buy her small daughter a rabbit, she had no idea that she would end up with two hens as well. Finding herself at the wrong end of a very steep learning curve, she then had to master the many skills of hen husbandry in short order, from what to feed them to how best to fox-proof a small urban garden. Chicken Coops for the Soul is a record of the five years of trial and error that ensued, in which Julia charts the joys, challenges and inevitable moments of disappointment of allowing your life to become dominated by poultry. Fascinating and entertaining by turns, this is a book that will prove invaluable to the aspiring keeper and remind chicken aficionados why they became hooked in the first place.

If you know of any other chooken books I should add to the list, please definitely let me know.