I was once in Prospect Park in Brooklyn when I passed a very small child wearing a porkpie hat running as fast as his chubby legs could carry him. Behind him his father yelled out (to little avail), “Pontius! Pontius, slow down!” I mention this because there is a particular Brooklyn aesthetic to a picture book like The Chicken Problem. Consider, if you will, its heroine Peg. Here she is sporting a mighty trendy little outfit replete with striped tights and buckled red boots. Even her name, Peg, suggests that she was named after Peggy Lee or someone of equal caliber. Notice too that she’s playing a ukulele on the endpapers and that pretty much clinches it. Peg is trendy. Too trendy for your preschooler? Not in the least. Peg may be a specific type of heroine peculiar to a single geographical location but with her urbane Cat and her trouble with high-spirited chicks this is one of those memorable heroines and one-on-one readalouds that add a little bit of math to a little bit of story alongside a whole lot of fine and beautiful art to bring us one fine fine book.
It’s a bright and beautiful day when young Peg and her cat Cat go to the farm to have a perfect picnic with a pig. Peg is one of those girls who like everything to be just so, and when she discovers that she accidentally cut an extra slice of pie she feels it’s a dire problem. Cat solves the imbalance by removing a very small chick from a nearby coop and surely that would be the end of that . . . if he’d managed to remember to close the coop door. Suddenly one hundred chickens are free and roaming the farm. It’s up to Peg, Cat, and maybe that pig they picked up, to figure out a way to cajole these freedom loving fowl into returning from whence they came. When that mission is finally accomplished that leaves one final matter: Time for pie!
I’ve read the occasional professional review that snarked about the svelte story found here, but to be honest I was rather charmed by it. It’s not the most dire straits that Peg and Cat must escape but in the simplest sense it’s a story with a mistake, a solution, and a conclusion that feels satisfying. The language itself repeats in good ways and sounds pleasant on the tongue (“The pie was fresh and juicy and gooey”) while the plot appeals to the pint-sized obsessive compulsives out there that insist that everything be exactly right.
The art is particularly charming, though I found I couldn’t figure out the medium. If I was going to harbor a guess I’d say that it was digital art doing a stand-up and cheer imitation of mixed media. I might have figured it to be done by hand, were it not for the fact that on more than one occasion a chicken will repeat in a large crowd scene. No matter, since it’s the charm of the characters that ultimately pull this puppy through. Peg, noseless though she may be, is a likeable soul. Cat, a feline I initially considered lacking in smiles, turns out to have quite a bit of nuance to his rotund eggplant-like little body. The pig is always referred to as “a pig”, as if he were just some barnyard stray the duo stumbled over on their travels. He seems so content wherever he is, legs neatly crossed beneath him, that you suspect he’d follow Peg and Cat to the ends of the earth if they asked. As for the chickens themselves, they’re beautifully expressionless and yet you spend a lot of your time just trying to keep up with their antics.
Speaking of endpapers, I’ve seen inside jokes in my day. I’ve seen clever details and little pokes of fun. What I have never seen are endpapers that are SO o’erfilled with details and ideas that you could spend the better part of twenty minutes parsing them. It is important to know that the front endpapers are incredibly different from the back endpapers. I mention this in part because I know that libraries have a tendency to glue their bookflaps to their books’ front and back covers and the result is going to cover up quite a bit of content. At the front of the book you can find six scenes drawn from Peg and Cat’s adventures. Sometimes they might be rowing George Washington over the Delaware while other times they’re jamming with a band of bears. Quick flip to the back of the book and you’ve the strangest collection of one hundred chickens you ever did see. An explanation is provided in the special thanks section. It says, “And, for posing so patiently for the pictures, the one hundred chickens,” and then names each and every last one of them. It took a while for me to realize that the names correspond with the pictures on the opposite page. I had already looked at the pictures of the chicks before and noticed odd details about them (like the fact that one of them resembled President Obama on his HOPE poster) but didn’t realize that each one had a name (“Barawk Obama”). Look closely enough and you’ll find references to Lady Gaga, Mahatma Gandhi, Rumpelstiltskin, St. John, George Bernard Shaw, and many others. My personal favorite was the preppy turtleneck donning Cluck C. Cluck III. Even without reading his name I knew he was a 1% chicken, if you know what I mean.
As the bookflaps explain, Peg and Cat are well on their way to becoming a television series on PBS that teaches preschoolers math someday. And while that might account for some of the adventures on the endpapers, the story stands perfectly well on its own. I don’t need to see Peg on my TiVo to know she’s a special kind of kid. Whether or not the show occurs, I do hope that we’ll see more of Peg and her erstwhile purple companion on good old-fashioned paper and board in the future. I suspect folks will end up picking up the book more for the art and story than the math, and that’s okay. Fun pretty much sums it up.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer, ill. Dan Santat
- The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann
- Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
- The Problem With Chickens by Bruce McMillan, ill. Gunnella
Interview: Nerdy Book Club
There was a cute little book trailer, of course:
And though its website is gone, you get a pretty clear sense of Peg, Cat and their world here.
I am now entertaining the ridiculous hope that when the show premiers they make Peg-with-ukelele YouTube videos like the millions already out there. Just Peg, a ukelele, a blank wall, and one of her songs. I mean, might as well at this point, right?