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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Chickens to the Rescue!
Chickens to the Rescue!
written and illustrated by John Himmelman
Henry Holt,(October 2006)
On Monday, Farmer Greenstalk dropped his watch down the well.
Chickens to the rescue!
"Those are some chickens!" said Farmer Greenstalk.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Greenstalk was too tired to make dinner.
Chickens to the rescue!
--Chickens to the Rescue!, by John Himmelman, p. 1-7.
Who solves problems on a farm? Well, at the Greenstalk farm it's the chickens. On each day of the week some trouble occurs that the chickens solve--on Monday, Farmer Greenstalk drops his watch down the well, and the chickens fetch it out; on Tuesday Mrs. Greenstalk is too tired to make dinner and the chickens make it for her; on Wednesday the dog eats Jeffrey Greenstalk's homework and the chickens re-create it, and so on--until by Sunday, they are so worn out that they take a long nap--and the pigs come out instead. Chickens to the Rescue is a light, funny book with a lot of good feeling.
Himmelman's (Tudley Didn't Know) brief, simple text dives immediately into the problem, and then the solution, and then on into the next problem, sweeping readers away into the action. However, the simple text is a bit too simple for me, especially in the beginning; the book relies heavily on the illustrations to tell the story. Still, there's a pleasing repetition of the refrain "chickens to the rescue," and a nice movement through a problem for each day of the week that helps pull the story together. The understated comments that the farmer and his family make after the chickens rescue them work especially well, and that and the calm acceptance of the incredible feats the chickens accomplish greatly increase the humor. For instance, after the chickens go through elaborate measures to make a meal, flipping pancakes, stirring soup, donning mini aprons and chef hats, chopping up vegetables, taking things out of the fridge, even doing the dishes, Mrs. Greenstalk simply says "What dear chickens you are." The family's positive comments about the chickens are also uplifting; I missed that when the chickens rescued other animals, and the animals simply made animal sounds.
Emily's dialogue on Sunday when her breakfast spills to the floor "Um, big mess here, if anyone's interested," shows how much the family has come to expect and rely on the chickens to save them from small and big mishaps, and adds a nice pause before the funny scene where the chickens are all resting, taking the day off. The family's last name is fitting for farmers, creative, and brings a pleasing visual and emotional association.
The book's greatest strength is Himmelman's pencil-and-watercolor illustrations--they are hugely funny, full of energy, full of activity without being chaotic or too crowded, and are beautifully illustrated with a cartoon appeal. Especially funny is how over-enthusiastic the chickens are, and how all of them come at once and crazily help out, feathers flying, chickens tumbling over each other in their mad rush to help. The chickens' mannerisms and facial expressions also bring laughter; after the chickens complete each rescue, their sense of satisfaction, pride, and determination is hugely evident through haughty facial expressions and actions such as dusting off their wings, bowing, and walking away with their heads held high. The various outfits and tasks that some of the chickens do are also very funny. For instance, when they go to fetch the farmer's watch from the well, some of the chickens dress in brightly colored, silly bathing suits, some wear swimming fins, swimmer's masks, bathing caps, goggles, and snorkels as they leap, jump, and dive toward the well, and one chicken sits on the edge of the well with a fishing pole. Another chicken ends up with a pail over her head, while another sits right on the farmer's head.
There is so much to look at in every illustration, but especially where the chickens rescue others. It is great fun to see what each chicken is doing, the outfits that some of them don, the creative ways each try to help, and the ways they co-operate together to make something happen. The scenes where the chickens rescue animals much bigger than they are, teaming up together, are also sure to bring smiles and laughter. Observant readers will enjoy spotting the chicken on the watch in each illustration as the crisis occurs, before the hoard of chickens arrive (chickens appear at the windows for two of the crises). Also befitting a book about chicken heroes, and a nice foreshadowing to the ending, is the poster of a super-hero pig pinned to Jeffrey Greenstalk's wall.
Himmelman's work is very expressive and animated, with strong body language and facial expressions; it's always clear what the chickens are feeling, as well as most of the other characters. This adds a great strength to the book. There is a lively, upbeat energy to the illustrations, most especially the chickens (and at the end, the pigs), and this adds to the humor and good feeling. The illustrations have a bright, light feeling to them, with a lot of white appearing through the chickens themselves and various highlights in each illustration (a pillow, fridge, streaks of light, etc.), as well as white space on the page around the illustrations. Bright, strong colors are used, especially yellows and greens with highlights of red. The recurring colors help visually tie the book together, as well as each illustration. For example, bright red is used in the chickens' heads and in the farmer's shirt and hat, furniture in the kitchen, the boy's chair, etc.
There is a richness and depth to the colors, and a pleasing gradation of color inherent in layers of watercolor. Himmelman also makes good use of light and shadow. The borderless illustrations have soft edges, and rhythmically vary from one illustration per page for each problem or reaction to the solution, to one illustration per spread for the chicken rescue. The increased space and thus focus on the chickens' rescue is appropriate, as readers will want to pour over the chaotic, funny activity that occurs. Two bonus illustrations appear, on the inside title page and on copyright and acknowledgment page, that add to the story and introduce the chickens.
The ending continues the great humor and adds a perfect punch line. We see how the family has come to rely on the chickens swooping in to save the day--and then on the 7th day, when something happens, and the family waits for the chickens to arrive, the chickens are off sleeping, resting after their exertions. Then, in the closing, wordless illustration, as the entire family is looking in at the sleeping chickens, we see the exuberant pigs are running in to eat up the spilled breakfast and save the day--and it's obvious the whole thing is going to start all over again, but with the pigs as rescuers. This is the perfect ending to the book, as it makes the reader feel that the story hasn't ended at all, but that the fun is just going to keep repeating and repeating.
Chickens To the Rescue is a funny, feel-good book sure to make you laugh and bring some lightness to your heart. Highly recommended!
-Added May 2007
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