Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, February 5, 2016

Love And... Life Lessons

More times than I can remember, students have walked into my library telling me in soft, heartbroken voices about the loss of a beloved animal family member.  For the younger ones, depending on the creature, it was probably a part of their lives for as long as they could remember.  Making sure I was at eye level with them, I told them how sorry I was.  If they wanted a hug, one was given.

I never told them that time will ease the pain or that death is a part of life because adjusting to the absence of someone loved is different for each individual.  The pain is tangible, something you carry every day.  Some days the weight is heavier than on others.  Eventually those days when the load is unbearable will be less than those when it is.  

In 2001 the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for New Illustrator was established.  This award, the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, for authors and illustrators is designed to

recognize and encourage emerging talent in the field of children's books.  

This week the recipient for the 2016 New Illustrator Award  was announced as Phoebe Wahl for her new book, Sonya's Chickens (Tundra Books, August 11, 2015).

One day, Sonya's papa came home with three fluffy chicks.  He gave the chicks to Sonya.  "It can be your job to take care of them." he told her.

Until the coop was properly ready for occupation, those three tiny chicks lived in a cardboard box with Sonya inside her home.  Like the proverbial mother hen she took care of all their needs.  When the farm's alarm clock, the rooster, sounded each morning she went to the coop making sure all was well with her chickens.

She kept them feed and watered, cleaning out their home and placing clean straw inside their boxes.  They were allowed to roam within the yard.  Wherever Sonya went those chickens trailed behind her.

One day she discovered a beautiful brown egg in one of the chicken's nest.  This made Sonya's happiness grow.  She was careful each evening to put the hens inside the coop, making sure the door was secure.  The gate to the fenced enclosure also needed to be shut tight.

Sonya woke one night to loud sounds coming from her chickens' coop.  She bravely ventured outside knowing they needed her help.  When she got inside, amid the scattered feathers, she counted only two chickens.

As tears streamed down her face, her papa came, hugged her tight and took her inside their home.  This wise man told Sonya a story about an animal that was doing the same thing Sonya did for her chicks and the same thing he did for Sonya and her little brother.  Her sadness did not go away but she did understand why her chicken was gone.

The next day the family honored her sweet hen.  They made sure the coop was repaired.  Sonya continued to do as she had always done for her two remaining feathered friends.  One day life gave her a gift.

As an author Phoebe Wahl tells a story in which children and adults can relate.  It's a tale of putting the care of something else before your own needs.  When we do this, it is out of love.

She brings us into this narrative by telling us all the things Sonya does for her chickens and their response to her.  When Wahl makes a point of explaining the nightly rituals, we pause wondering what will happen next.  Like all good storytellers when our fears are realized, she leads us back to a safe place with the father's words about the ways of woodland animals.  The repetition of certain phrases supplies a rhythm and a sense of security.  Here is another sample passage.

Sonya took her job of tending to the chickens very seriously, and they grew quickly into gawky pullets.  As her mama and papa went about the duties of the farm, Sonya was proud to do her part.  Everywhere Sonya went, her little birds were at her heels, peeping loudly.

Upon opening the matching dust jacket and book case, readers can see a liberal use of green on the left and right side of the illustration.  Although the two sides are in different parts of Sonya's world they blend together as one complete picture.  On the front is Sonya in a farm setting with her chickens.  To the left is a scene from the surrounding woods, a foreshadowing of events to come.  After explaining the difference between a dust jacket and a book case to younger students, they now ask if the illustrator has left us a "surprise" when the jacket is removed.  In this instance Phoebe Wahl did but not where you would expect.  (Please view the Vine taken by Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher.)  The opening and closing endpapers are in two shades of golden yellow, patterned with flora, the chickens and the woodland creature that provides for his young.

Using watercolor, collage and colored pencil Wahl conveys in her images a vintage, textured quality exuding warm amid the pastoral setting.  On some pages her text is framed in branches, a cozy nest or a forest den. She varies her visuals' sizes from two pages edge to edge, larger illustrations extending across the gutter, single page unframed pictures or smaller insets on a white background.

One of my favorite illustrations spans two pages. In the background is the green and brown of the forest.  To the left is the chicken coop with the three hens running from their door to follow Sonya.  To the side of the coop is a garbage bin.  In the foreground and along the fenced-in yard are delicate pink flowers.  On the right Sonya, wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt, red-patterned jumper and yellow rubber boots, is walking and carrying a red pail.  It's a wonderful, all-is-right-with-the-world scene.

Sonya's Chickens written and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl is a heartwarming story of different kinds of love; a girl's love for her chickens, a forest creature's love for his babies and a parent's love for their daughter.  It explains beautifully how the wildlife world and that of humans cross boundaries.  It illustrates the need for comprehension and compassion.

To learn more about Phoebe Wahl and her other work please visit her website and blog by following the links attached to her name.  At Storybook Spotlight you can listen to a podcast about this title with Phoebe and Karen Santhanam.  NW Kids Magazine interviews Phoebe Wahl about Sonya's Chickens.  Author, reviewer, and blogger, Julie Danielson, invites Phoebe Wahl to be a guest on her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, September 1, 2013.  There is a lot of artwork. 

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