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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Petulant Poultry Alert: The Cranky Chicken Cover Reveal and Interview with Katherine Battersby

On Monday of this week I conducted an interview with an author and illustrator on a book that takes a deep dive into the life of a Jewish American whose dedication to civil rights continues to inspire us to this day.

On Tuesday of this week I interviewed an author and illustrator about a book that pushes boundaries in terms of body positivity and the role of the human form in children’s literature at this precise moment in time.

Today, I’m talking about a cranky chicken.

I have layers, people.

Katherine Battersby is the author of CRANKY CHICKEN, an early chapter book chock full o’ poultry, and she was kind enough to allow me to premiere her cover and talk to her about the whole kerschmozzle. Here’s the publisher description:

“Cranky Chicken is, well, cranky. With one cranky eyebrow, cranky eyes, and even cranky, scratchy feet. But then one day, Cranky meets a very friendly worm named Speedy who wants nothing more than to be friends. Young readers will love seeing the mismatched friendship grow over the course of three charming and laugh-out-loud short adventures as Chicken and Speedy become BFFs (Best Feathered Friends) and Speedy shows Chicken how to look on the bright side.

Katherine Battersby is a talent to watch, as she’s the critically acclaimed children’s author and illustrator of eight picture books, including Perfect Pigeons and Squish Rabbit, a CBC Children’s Choice Book. Her illustrations in The Cranky Chicken are vibrant and downright adorable, from Cranky’s frowny single eyebrow to Speedy’s dramatic dialogue. From start to finish, this story is impossible to read without a smile.”

Sometimes you need a little chicken in your life. Plus I’m a sucker for early chapter books, so I was already in this one’s corner.

Betsy Bird: Hi Katherine! Thanks so much for joining me. In fact, you can answer a longstanding debate I’ve had with some of my fellow librarians. What animal makes for a better children’s book: A chicken or a bear? I suspect, just based on the title of your latest book, that I know which way you’ll sway, but I’m open to surprises.

Katherine Battersby

Katherine Battersby: You’d think this would be a simple answer for me. But I am rather partial to a good bear book – in fact, my last picture book (TROUBLE) featured a bear. That said, when it comes to bears Vs chickens, chickens win hands (wings?) down in the quirk department, so ultimately they have my heart. That is definitely the reason CRANKY CHICKEN was such an interesting character to me – she’s cranky and quirky and is always so spectacularly her unique self.

BB: So tell us a bit about your CRANKY CHICKEN. How did this book come to you? What’s its origin story?

KB: CRANKY CHICKEN is a humorous graphic novel about a very cranky chicken who accidentally saves an excitable worm. Worm decides they are going to be BFFs – Best Feathered Friends. The book follows their unlikely friendship across three mini stories.

As for where the idea came from, well … I have a secret. I’m scared of chickens. This fear features in another book of mine (SQUISH RABBIT) so it often comes up during school visits. At the end of one of my talks, this tiny, sassy girl came up to me, hands on hips, and demanded “Why don’t you like chickens?” So I told her: they have beady eyes and sharp beaks and tiny bird-like brains and I don’t trust them. She just stared at me, unconvinced, so I asked her why she liked them so much. She said “Because they’re hilarious!” I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and I figured I owed it to her to spend some time drawing chickens to see if I could see in them what she does. CRANKY CHICKEN is what emerged.

The story itself is inspired by the ridiculous antics my best friend and I used to get up to as kids. She was an extrovert who was an only child, so she was always turning up on my doorstep just like Worm – full of excitement and ready to play. I, on the other hand, was an introvert who was part of a big blended family. I never had any time to myself, so I could be a bit of a cranky chicken. Even now, we often laugh at how different and yet similar we are. Chicken and Worm are a lot like that, too.

BB: You’ve done a number of picture books in the past. This book is more of the early chapter book variety. Is it your first book for older readers?

KB: It is! I have always wanted to make a graphic novel style early chapter book and have just been waiting for the right characters to come along. I adored comic books as a kid. I grew up surrounded by comics my parents collected on their travels – Asterix and Obelix, Tintin, Footrot Flats (a reference most people outside of Australia and New Zealand won’t get!). Many of our Tintin books were in French, which I couldn’t read, but that didn’t stop me from reading the pictures. As a teen I collected The Far Side and various cartoon strips I cut from newspapers. I’m not at all surprised I’m finally making my own graphic novel, but I am surprised at how long it took me. I suppose these books are often humorous and I’ve never really seen myself as someone who writes comedy, but apparently I have my own style of humour that seems to work.

BB: Tell us a bit about the learning curve that comes when you have to switch gears from writing picture books to writing older fare for kids. What makes a good book for slightly older readers? What do you have to avoid?

KB: I work more instinctively than anything (as opposed to setting out knowing exactly what I’m doing!). I tend to stumble across a new character, follow them around the page until I figure out their story and only then step back to see if I can work out what format their story best suits. Up until now it’s always been picture books, but as soon as I met Chicken and Worm I just knew they were destined for a graphic novel. They had that kind of energy – quirky and playful and they feel everything BIG. Plus their stories were all coming out in dialogue, so I felt they would suit a comic style book with speech bubbles.

In truth, I rarely know what age group I’m writing for when I’m working on a story. I just start out playing with an idea that makes me smile or laugh or that moves me in some way. This understanding of genres and age groups comes much later, so I rarely feel limited by having to create a certain kind of story for a certain kind of audience. Mostly I just try to stay true to my characters – I follow their lead and try to capture their stories as best I can. I suppose this instinct likely comes from having spent a lot of time with kids this age. I was previously a pediatric occupational therapist and I specialized as a children’s counselor. I am ever fascinated by young people – I love the way they think and they always manage to surprise me. Now I have a little one of my own (my daughter is two and a half) so I get a front row seat to growing up and daily opportunities to observe and marvel at what it is to be small in a big world.

As for what makes a great book for this age group, I feel like it’s the same thing that makes me fall in love with any kind of book: a story with relatable characters and genuine emotion. If you can relate to a character’s emotions, it will feel as though the book is speaking directly to your heart, even if the story itself is unfamiliar in its setting or circumstances. In ways, I think this is even more important for humorous books, because they can feel a bit hollow without those really genuine human emotions at their core. I love to laugh, but I want to feel, too. I love books where you emerge from them feeling a little more understood.

BB: Was there anything you wanted to include and just couldn’t?

KB: Oh my goodness, yes! But not in the sense that I had to edit down or censor the story to suit the age group. It’s more that these characters are just so vivid in my mind – they never stop speaking to me and I have so many ideas for them! There was only so much I could include in the book, so I settled on three separate but linked stories. But I have reams and reams of notes about their antics and future possible adventures. They are just always up to something and never cease to make me laugh. I hope I get to make many books about them.

BB: Will CRANKY CHICKEN stand alone or might you be penning future CRANKY CHICKS in the future?

KB: Maybe CRANKY CHICKS should be the title of my first tell-all autobiography? That aside, I’m actually in the midst of finishing the final art for the second CRANKY CHICKEN book as we speak – it will be out in June 2022. I really can’t wait to see how little readers react to my quirky duo. I just adore making these books. My inner child is thrilled I’m making comic books and my adult self is still in awe that I get to do this every day as my job.

And now, the full fowl:

Big time thanks to big time good sport Katherine Battersby for answering my questions with such aplomb. Thanks too to Chantal Gersch and the good folks at Simon & Schuster for this talk. And here’s to more petulant poultry in the future.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.