What’s up with the Europeans out there? Are they better than the Yanks at wordless picture books? Or are they just less afraid to publish them? Remember that when someone like David Wiesner publishes a wordless picture book, like Flotsam, he gets showered in big shiny gold medals. Generally speaking, however, wordless picture books aren’t as common as all that in the American marketplace. Plus, to make a book without words and only pictures requires a deep and abiding knowledge of visual storytelling. And since America is still slow to grasp the implications behind graphic novels and panel-related story fare, the Europeans plunge onward, producing books like Beatrice Rodriguez’s charming and very French The Chicken Thief. An epic cross-country chase, this book reads like The Bremen Town Musicians meets The Fugitive.
On a beautiful day a rabbit, fox, rooster, hens, and chicks all wake up to start the day. Unbeknownst to them, a hungry fox is lying in wait. Then, when no one expects it, he grabs the white chicken in his paws and the race is on. Rooster, bear, and rabbit pursue the two through woods, over mountains, and across a wide sea. When at last the three confront the fox in its own home, the hen rushes to his defense and explains that the two have fallen in love. Everyone settles down for a nice bit of soup and the next day the three set off, waving goodbye to the fox and his new fowl love.
There is a bit of Stockholm Syndrome to the story, granted. The chicken is initially stolen for her plump deliciousness, that much seems clear. It’s only over the course of her escape with the fox that the two seem to bond and fall in love. They play chess together. They enjoy a sunny day in a boat (the chicken having somehow acquired sunglasses). One could argue that had the bear, rabbit, and rooster not pursued the two as closely as they did, these two would not have had time to fall in love and the chicken would have expired as early on as page ten. So I suppose that could be a concern, but since we’re talking about foxes (which do eat chickens after all) and the power of love conquering the power of nature, I’m not particularly perturbed by whatever lesson you want to read into all this. If you want to be disturbed by it, all power to you. For my part, I love the surprise ending and ways in which we hear about the fox and chicken’s burgeoning relationship.
The pictures themselves appear to be pen-and-ink colored in with watercolors. And there’s always a tiny detail to spot on every two-page spread. Did you notice the arrows showing the path the fox and chicken took to get out of the mountain? Or the badminton racquets and shuttlecock sitting on the fox’s hearth at the end of the tale? Did you spot the very French café chairs the rabbit and bear sit in while having their incredibly French breakfast at the story’s start? Or what about the dejected rooster at the end, utterly crushed by the fact that the chicken prefers the fox’s charms to his own (I don’t know what he’s complaining about since he CLEARLY has two hens waiting for him at home anyway). You could spend hours finding every last little detail in this book, and there would still be more to find.
Consider now the shape of the book. Author/illustrator Mo Willems has a great talk that he gives where he draws your attention to the shape of his individual picture books. Sometimes these books are tall and skinny. Sometimes they’re perfectly square. And sometimes they are long and thin. Rodriguez’s book is long and thin, which is perfect for a story that is essentially one long chase sequence. Images will sometimes take up two full pages, giving you a wonderful sense of the movement and energy in the story. Other times, you get two-page spreads that mess with your sense of perspective. The fox might be sleeping in a tree close to the reader on the far right page. Then, though we tend to read left to right, the eye moves back to the left-hand page where you can make out the other characters in a tree farther away. The choice to make the page on the right near and the one on the left far keeps readers active and energized. You are inclined to always find the fox first on these pages, then double back to see what the other animals are doing. It goes against your natural reading patterns.
Moreover, a wonderful job is done in breaking up the images so that they don’t all blend together. In the first two page spreads the picture on the left-hand side of the page is surrounded in a white border. On the right-hand page, the image bleeds all the way out to the edges. Rodriguez isn’t afraid to play with borders and panels. One suspects that she has done more than her fair share of comics in the past.
Once in a while a parent or teacher will ask for a list of recommended wordless books. Sometimes these are useful for kids who want to read books but haven’t learned how to read yet. Other times they’re good for kids who are new to the country and want to read something, but haven’t grasped the English language quite yet. And then there are other times when you just want to teach a kid what it’s like to tell a story in pictures rather than words. From here on in I will be recommending The Chicken Thief to those already existing fans of Regis Faller’s The Adventures of Polo or The Boy The Bear The Baron The Bard by Gregory Rogers. Fun with a twist ending, this is one of the lovelier picture book offerings of the year.
On shelves May 1st.
Source: Hardcover copy sent from the publisher for review.
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