Call it barnyard self-actualization. Too heavy an idea for a picture book? Fine. How about breaking down the barn’s fourth wall? Or nine barnyard characters in search of an illustrator? However you want to couch it, I think we can probably state for the record that by this point any picture book that shows drawn characters taking on a life of their own is fairly par for the course. It’s not a particularly new or shocking idea. Mischievous chickens are also par for the course. No one can be all THAT surprised by their antics. That said, though these are ideas that make it into children’s books from time to time, until now I’ve not seen anyone specifically combine the two into a single book. Blue Chicken turns out to be the natural descendant of these two notions. Part barnyard antics, part surreal adventure, Deborah Freedman at last returns with a picture book that uses a minimum of words to create for us a fairly complex notion.
On a rainy day on a desk in a home sits an unfinished painting of a sleepy barnyard scene. Curious, one of the chickens in the picture notices the nearby jars of paint just outside of the frame. Unfortunately for her, this natural curiosity leads to an unprecedented spill that threatens to cover every animal in the picture. The ducklings are fairly cool about it, but the other creatures are distinctly displeased. In her effort to make things right, the chicken comes across a clear liquid that manages to wipe out all the unwanted blue except in the sky above. Content, the animals settle down back again. Only the final image in the book suggests where the chicken might be poking her nosy little beak next.
Now normally when drawn characters take their lives into their own hands, the story makes it very clear that these are characters in a book, breaking free of the shackles of the printed page. What’s interesting about Deborah Freedman’s book is that she prefers to imagine worlds where people do the drawing, coloring, and painting. In her previous book, Scribble, the drawings of two little girls come to life and get a little wild across the page. Likewise, in Blue Chicken it’s a drawing on a barnyard that contains all the requisite characters. Freedman isn’t tempted to challenge the very notion of reading a book like David Wiesner did in The Three Pigs or Mordecai Gerstein in A Book. Her interest seems more focused on what our imagination’s characters are capable of, rather than the characters dreamed up by the third party. I like the way she thinks.
There’s a great deal of joy and action to this book as well. I can’t imagine what technique Freedman tapped into for this title, but it sure feels like real watercolors on the page. There’s a splatter technique at work here that wouldn’t be impossible to replicate on a computer (paging William Low) but at this point in our development I have yet to see a computer replicate the sheer randomness of askew paint droplets as beautifully as we find here. Nor the feathering of the edges of the paint as it climbs up the chicken’s body. Nor the sheer messy layering of the paint as it dapples the other chickens’ torsos. Limited, in a sense, to a single color the book doesn’t contain the sheer mind-blowing splatter pandemonium of I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More but Freedman still uses the color she has to create wonderful little moments of action. From the splash of the chicken’s feet in the blue paint sea to the strange action splatter that almost resembles angry animals when she finds that she is “Sincerely sorry”, for such a seemingly simple book Freedman has a lot to play around with here.
Now there is one moment in this book that may cause a little confusion. Folks with a knowledge of painting may parse it better than a five-year-old. At one point the blue chicken is rightfully accused of some pretty wanton destruction. Apologetic, she discovers a glass jar containing a clear liquid and some paintbrushes. When the chicken topples this particular jar, out spills a kind of substance that washes all the animals and their settings (with the exception of their sky) clean as a whistle. The word “turpentine” is never invoked. It’s a big word. It might not fit in a book that uses sentences this simple. Freedman is very careful with her word choices, you can tell. There’s not a syllable out of place or an unwanted term hovering anywhere. With that in mind, I would have liked at least some vague or glossed over explanation of what the liquid was up to. Though, to be honest, it may be enough for kids to simply understand that this glass jar contained something powerful enough to cleanse away the fowl’s colorful mischief.
Sometimes in my library I’ll run across a patron with a particularly specific request. “I need a picture book that’s just about the letter T”. “I need a picture book about the history of Persia”. Slightly easier, “I need a picture book about the color blue.” Bingo. Until now I might have only been able to come up with Jim Averbeck’s In a Blue Room or maybe Blue 2 by David A. Carter. Blue Chicken will have to be slotted in there first and foremost now. Playful and surreal without getting so kooky that it loses its audience, Freedman knows how to write a picture book that’s bound to get kids and their parental units reading and rereading over and over and over again.
On shelves September 15th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: Write Wild