Quote of the Month

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

Monday, June 8, 2015

Cluck Cluck Capers

Big changes bring big challenges.  These challenges can come in the form of living conditions, environment, financial status, loss of friends or family dynamics.  Leaving what is known to venture into the unknown takes a special kind of savvy.

Fitting in as the new person in a small community, regardless of your outlook, is dependent on the personalities of those established residents.  Unusual Chickens For The Exceptional Poultry Farmer (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, May 12, 2015) written by Kelly Jones with illustrations by Katie Kath is a remarkable exploration of a twelve-year old girl's new life.  Told through a series of letters, this story will resonate with readers regardless of their age.

Blackbird Farm
                                                     June 2, 2014
Mr. or Ms. Catalog People
Redwood Farm Supply
Gravenstein, CA 95472

Dear People Who Send Catalogs to People on Farms,
My great-uncle Jim had your flyer in his barn.  I can't ask him about it, because he died a couple of months ago.  But we live on his farm now, and if I have to live on a farm, I think it ought to be an interesting one, with chickens and ducks and maybe some peacocks or something.  Right now, we don't even have tomatoes, just rows and rows of grapevines.  And they don't even have grapes yet. ...

Sophie Brown, her writer mom and out-of-work dad have moved from an apartment in Los Angeles to a big, cluttered-with-junk, rambling farm house complete with a barn and out buildings they have inherited in a small rural town.  On top of adapting to life in the country, they miss the comfort of Sundays spent with relatives, companionship of friends, job security and a steady income.  There are no close neighbors, the mooing of cows sounds like a zoo and Sophie and her mom are the only people with brown skin except for Gregory the mailman, a tall black man.

In an effort to make the best of things Sophie explores the parameter of the farm finding a small wooden house near some blackberry bushes.  She also sets up a small area in the hay loft with a desk and old typewriter she finds.  The next morning a rather cantankerous small white chicken is standing in front of the house giving it and Sophie a slow inspection.  Unknown to Sophie this chicken is quite extraordinary.

Several days have passed and Sophie has still not informed her parents about the presence of the chicken.  She is doing her best to care for the hen on her own.  She does discover the uncanny abilities this chicken has.  Do you know any chickens that can latch and unlatch their hen house door?  Do you know any chickens that can make objects float?  Do you know any chickens that lay glass eggs?

Before you can cluck, cackle or coo, a single incident, an attempted theft actually, sets off a chain reaction of events.  Henrietta, named after a character in The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, is discovered by Sophie's parents, the thief, one Sue Griegson, has been lying, the town librarian Ms. O'Malley sets the record straight, lessons are learned and quizzes are taken, a strange predator is swooping and snooping around, more of great-uncle Jim's unusual chickens return to roost and Sophie meets Chris, a poultry-loving boy her age.  A frightening episode, an otherworldly revelation and an annual exhibition supply a truly memorable conclusion.

As readers move from letter to letter written by Sophie to Redwood Farm Supply, Mariposa Garcia Gonzalez, Sophie's deceased maternal grandmother and Mr. James Brown, her father's uncle, they will become fascinated with the story and characters created by debut author Kelly Jones.  Sophie puts her heart on these pages of correspondence knowing her grandmother and great-uncle will never reply.  She does receive rather cryptic answers from an Agnes at Redwood Farm Supply, contributing to an air of mystery.

In a matter-of-fact, descriptive manner Sophie relates each day's activities.  Conversations are repeated word for word.  We get the full scoop thanks to Sophie's wit, twelve-year-old wisdom and never-ending curiosity.  Her studies of chickens are printed for us to enjoy and learn as she does.  I am confident readers will enjoy the moments of humor found often in the letters, even in the address; Sophie first sending her grandmother a message to Heaven, then A Better Place Than This Farm and Somewhere Gregory can't deliver the mail to.  The letters are an ingenious storytelling technique endearing readers to Sophie, her parents and the cast of supportive characters including the unusual chickens.  Here are several more example passages from this book.

Thank you for considering my request.  I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest opportunity.
(I think Mom must have found me some old letter format, because no one talks like this.  If I did this wrong, it isn't my fault.)

The barn isn't red, like I thought barns were; where it isn't painted, it's just really old brownish-gray wood.  It's kind of neat inside, though.  A ladder goes up to what Mom says is the hayloft.  Don't worry, it isn't falling down or anything.  It's really peaceful, like a library, with a high ceiling and dusty old wood, and it smells like a pumpkin patch.  It makes me think of horses sleeping. 

PS What were you saving all those piles of junk for?
PPS What am I supposed to do with this chicken now?
PPPS Don't come back from the dead to answer, okay?  I'll figure it out somehow. 

The black and white illustrations by Katie Kath heighten the overall charm of this title.  They are placed as a prelude to events.  Her details highlight important moments relative to each letter furthering the humor.  These images draw you even deeper into the story.

If teachers are looking for a fantastic read aloud give them Unusual Chickens For The Exceptional Poultry Farmer written by Kelly Jones with illustrations by Katie Kath.  Hand this book to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with lots of action and an air of the supernatural.  This is 213 pages of pure pleasure which will surely prompt a flurry of future letter writing.  In this age of email, texting and forms of social media, this story clearly shows the value of sharing your thoughts with others through more formal correspondence.  It's not often I stay up into the wee hours of the morning to finish a book but this one will hold you captive.

To learn more about author Kelly Jones and illustrator Katie Kath please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.

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