Thursday, July 14, 2016

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
by Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath

Seattle-based author Kelly Jones' debut book is a riot!

Sophie Brown's dad has inherited great-uncle Jim's farm, out in Gravenstein, CA. Twelve year old Sophie, a city girl from L.A., is not thrilled about moving to the farm lock, stock, and barrel. However, being well-mannered and well-adjusted, she is co-operative and understanding of the situation and makes her best effort to adapt to her new life.

Her dad is currently unemployed, while her mom juggles her writing commitments to earn enough to make both ends meet. Meanwhile, Sophie is left to her devices to figure out life in the farm.

Quite by accident, Sophie comes across a flyer from Redwood Farm Supply Company catalog listing unusual chickens. Sophie takes an interest and starts corresponding.

Meanwhile, quite naturally, Sophie stumbles upon Henrietta, a chicken of exceptional abilities. From then on, the story moves forward quite intriguingly, in installments, which the readers glean from the letters Sophie writes to her abuelita, great-uncle Jim, and Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply Company.

Yes, indeed, the story is told in the form of letters!

Not all books can carry off such a specialized form of storytelling. Not all stories lend themselves well to this format either. After reading it twice in full - once on my own, and once aloud to the younger child, and a few more times in parts to share with the older child, it is clear that the book is a fantastic work that appeals to me as much, if not more than the kids, even if it is middle grade fiction.

Among the many things that appealed to me in this book, I liked the subtle but clever reference to how brown-skinned Sophie and her Latina mom are automatically assumed to be migrant farm workers, legal or otherwise, and how they both take it in their stride even though both are US-born citizens, very much American. Her dad being white makes no difference to some people's prejudices.

Another aspect I found quite clever is that only so much can be revealed through the letters, which are mostly one-sided because Sophie's beloved abuelita and great-uncle Jim are dead and have no way of writing back. Plus, Agnes, who initially writes back, sends a bizarre note with lots of xs and extra characters clearly pointing to a faulty typewriter, or an inept typist.

Of course, another aspect is the brief but encyclopedic informational pages about the different types of chickens, the To-do Lists, and the adorable illustrations.

Slowly, but, surely, Sophie discovers over half a dozen of these unusual chickens that had belonged to great-uncle Jim, each with their own superpowers, for want of a better word.  And now they belong to her family. But, her parents don't have time for this, so it's up to Sophie to learn to take care of them, and possibly find a way to feed them without adding to the family's strained finances.

Henrietta, a Bantam White,  can move objects - telekinesis style. Chameleon can turn invisible, and Roadrunner/Black Streak can go super fast. Another one, a Buff Orpington, can produce chicks who can turn living things to stone with a blunt look. Plus three Speckled Sussex chickens who can see ghosts.

Their powers are not a secret, and all the folks in the area seem to be fine with it. Well, not all. There is one chicken thief who wants these unusual chickens all to herself, even if they are not hers. Right there is the conflict and rising action. Sophie must protect her chickens and expose the poultry thief. How she does it is quite heart-warming and believable. Along the way, Sophie finds unexpected friendship and inner strength that helps her overcome the problem.

Sophie says: "One thing my parents agree on is this: if people are doing something unfair, it’s part of our job to remind them what’s fair, even if sometimes it still doesn’t turn out the way we want it to." And that's a fair lesson every kid must learn sooner or later.

Katie Kath's pen and ink drawings are a treat,  bringing to mind Quentin Blake's masterful art for Roald Dahl's books. The pictures complement the story well and capture the goofiness of the chickens, unusual or otherwise.

Fantasy stories can invest in elaborate world-building to explain every little detail so it's all completely tied in a bow and satisfactory; or, they can leave some things open, bordering on reality, not indulging in world-building but using the realistic experiences to stretch the fantasy a little further than what kids are used to. The latter applies to this book, which makes no attempt to explain how or why there are these unusual chickens and what was a Farm Supply Company doing selling these to anybody willy-nilly.

All in all, a superbly satisfying read.

Look Inside the book at Random House

[image source: Penguin Random House]

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