A story, before we begin. All children’s librarians working for the New York Public Library system go through an intensive training process. Part of that training involves storytelling. This means that you must have the ability to tell a story all by yourself without the aid of a book in your hands. You must memorize the tale entirely, give credit where credit is due to its creator, and not deviate by so much as a word. Hard to do? You don’t know the half of it. When it came to be my time to memorize a tale I found myself flipping through author Margaret Read MacDonald’s, "Twenty Tellable Tales: Audience Participation Folktales for the Beginning Storyteller". And there, front and center, was a little story called "The Turkish Sultan and the Little Pet Rooster". Bingo! I memorized it, performed it, and to this day I can tell it to you (though you’ll have to allow for a bit of creative license in the places where my memory has decayed). And so I went blithely on my way, little knowing that the story that had saved my hide was being converted, construed, reconstituted, and reconvened into an entirely new entity. In short, what was once the tale of a Turkish sultan is now, "Little Rooster’s Diamond Button", with art by Will Terry. Thankfully I saw that another reviewer had the goods on this tale, and I was delighted to find that the essential core of the story remains intact, though some details here and there have undergone curious conversions.
For you see, there once was a little pet rooster who lived with a sweet little old lady. One day the rooster pecked up a diamond button from the dirt and intended to present it to his mistress, only to be waylaid by a nasty king. When the king steals the rooster’s button, the fine fowl is not afraid to voice his complaints. Peeved, the king attempts to do away with the rooster by drowning, burning alive, and stinging it to death, respectively. Unfortunately for the increasingly put out monarch, the rooster has a magic stomach that gets it out of every scrape. When the king decides that the ultimate punishment is to put the rooster in his baggy pants and sit on him, the bird releases the bees it had eaten not long ago and the king is stung right quick. The ruler then gives up and allows the rooster access to his treasure room, but the bird doesn’t think twice about eating up all the treasure, hopping on home, and then regurgitating it for his mistress so that the two can live happily ever after. The end.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a really weird story. Roosters with magic bellies are not your everyday fairy tale motifs. The prodigious appetite found in this rooster can only be matched by that of Mortimer, the fine-feathered friend found in Joan Aiken’s, Arabel’s Raven. Of course, the difference here is that the rooster is capable of a kind of family friendly projectile vomiting that manages to maintain the story’s interest without ever really grossing out the readership. What I’ve always loved about certain picture books that read aloud well is when they reach a point in the tale where the child audience can see where things are going. Bark, George, by Jules Feiffer has an ending that leaves a lot of kids feeling pretty smart. Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock by Eric Kimmel goes in a direction where, if you read it correctly, a kid will suddenly be unable to hold back and cry, "He’s going to say the words!" And in "Little Rooster’s Diamond Button," some kids will be able to figure out that when the king tries to put the rooster in his pants, those bees the bird swallowed earlier are going to make a noteworthy reappearance. I definitely recommend it as one of those rare books that read aloud beautifully then.
Illustrator Will Terry is an interesting person to pair with Ms. MacDonald. I loved his rooster and his acrylic on paper style. Characters pop off the page, and everything is remarkably bright and beautiful. There’s even a bit of twisting and turning of the book itself that’s nice. When the rooster is dropped down the well we can turn the book on its side and see it plunge into the water, drinking it down as it goes. I wish the text had also turned at this point, but sadly it remains where it is. Terry chooses to render the king and his advisors as clownish, with big round red noses and tiny pointed goatees. All in all, these choices are fine, but I might have made some changes. For example, when the rooster enters the treasure chamber in the original MacDonald telling we get a long description of the piles of jewels. Here there’s just a cursory mention of the room before it’s gobbled up. It would have been nice if Terry had given us a visual worthy of the sheer height and scale of such a place, so that the rooster’s meal seems all the more impossible. Even if the endpapers had been treasure rather than perfectly serviceable (if non-descript) flowers I would have been pleased. Still, all this aside it’s a lovely set of illustrations in a style that I enjoy reading. I just wish that it could have been a little more ludicrous and extraordinary.
The changes to the text that were made were interesting. Instead of a Turkish sultan with big flowing pants, we now have a king with oversized trousers. I can understand the switch, even if I miss the syllables of "Tur-kish-sul-tan" as opposed to the quick and dirty one syllable "king". Other changes are a little harder to explain. The sentences in this book have been condensed from the original, making it a very fast read. I understand that some people believe that picture books should have a limited number of words on each page, but again it seemed a pity. Oddest of all were the justifications entered into the story to explain why it was okay that the rooster takes the king’s entire treasury. In the original story it makes a lot of sense that a creature that was nearly drowned, burned alive, stung to death, and squashed should want a little revenge. Revenge is apparently not palatable to the purveyors of children’s books these days, though, so now the rooster sees the king’s treasure room and thinks, "So, this is the treasure the King has been stealing from my village all these years." Hunhuna? Really? Is it really necessary to mention this entirely new fact at this point in time? Give me back my greedy rooster who gives all the treasure to his mistress rather than his mistress and "all the village".
I appreciated that Ms. MacDonald took the time to cite some of her sources in the back of the book. And she mentions the fact that in the original Hungarian tale, the villain is Turkish, which is due to the occupation of Hungary by the Turks. In the end, I would have liked this book to have adhered a little more closely to MacDonald’s original retelling, but it’s still a fun rendition and worthy of reading in front of a class of screaming second graders. And read alouds, as we all know, are rare and beautiful things.
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