Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Wearied parents everywhere will appreciate this tale of a chicken child Who. Will. Not. Stop. Interrupting. the bedtime story ritual. As you may have guessed from the title (and the cover art), this is indeed a book about a chicken who interrupts.

Papa Chicken is putting his daughter to bed, and as so many children do, Little Chicken insists on the proper bedtime ritual, omitting nothing: in this case, weary Papa Chicken must read a bedtime story…but does it end there? Of course not! He admonishes his daughter NOT to interrupt, as she’s supposed to be calming down for bedtime so she can go to sleep. Instead, rather she (surprise, surprise) INTERRUPTS not one but three stories. The first is Hansel and Gretel, when she inserts “OUT jumped a little red chicken, and she said ‘DON’T GO IN! SHE’S A WITCH!’ So Hansel and Gretel didn’t. THE END!” Little Red Riding Hood and Chicken Little evoke similar responses, and similar apologies from the little chicken. (In fairness, I can sympathize, and I expect a good many children can as well; how many times do parents tell their children “Don’t Talk To Strangers!” and isn’t that exactly the point of Little Red Riding Hood?) In the end, the exasperated and very sleepy Papa Chicken says “Why don’t you tell a story?” Startled, the little red chicken takes him up on it…but Papa doesn’t last three sentences. Little Red Chicken kisses her bespectacled papa goodnight and crawls into bed with him.

I’d recommend it for kids who’ve outgrown simpler books such as Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or Jules Pfeiffer’s Bark, George; books such as they are better for kids too young, too immature or too inexperienced to sit through a story with a plot, even so simple a one as Interrupting Chicken, not to mention the problem that Interrupting Chicken is a lot funnier if you have some clue how the disrupted fairy tales in the books are supposed to go…and have begun to grow weary of the same old same old over and over and over again. I think I’m right in remembering that there’s a developmental phase that many kids go through in which they find amusing stories that twist or alter the tired old chestnuts; call Interrupting Chicken an instructional manual for kids who, though they won’t be able to spell it for another couple of decades, already understand perfectly the concept of “subverting the dominant paradigm”.

What to read next? Well, there are a lot of picture books out there for kids in this phase (kids of all ages). Just ask any children’s librarian. I’d suggest starting with books like Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner, (or Jon Scieska’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) or Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett.

Just to name a few…I’d welcome suggestions for more.

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Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Why do little girls (and some boys) love playing dress-up as pink fairy princess ballerinas? (I honestly don’t know. I seem to have missed this phase.)

In Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, Olivia’s going through something of an identity crisis, as she does NOT want to be just like every other girl (and some of the boys) her age. She does NOT want to dress up as a pink-tutu-ed fairy princess. Though, during the course of trying to get Olivia to bed, her mother points out patiently that Olivia did just that not too long ago, Olivia retorts that was when she was young. She’s now far too mature and sophisticated for tutus of any color, preferring a “ladies who lunch” outfit for a party and a particularly effective warthog costume for Halloween. Anyway, why are all the princesses pink? What about the Chinese and Thai and African and Indian princesses? What about growing up to do things like be a ‘reporter and expose corporate malfeasance’?

After finally being settled into bed, Olivia thinks about the problem and decides upon the ideal solution: she wants to be queen.

Hey, it makes sense to me. Why should we settle for being mere princesses after all? (The associated illustration makes it clear that Olivia’s thinking of something along the lines of a queen regnant, such as Queen Elizabeth.)

What to read next? Well, start with all the other “Olivia” books, but that’s self-evident. Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny trio is a possibility, as there he includes the parents’ exasperated reactions to Trixie’s problems. Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” books might be worth a try, though Eloise always struck me as a much more impish little troublemaker, while Olivia just has the normal energy of any preschooler. My thought was Russell Hoban’s “Frances” books; both series involve an anthropomorphic family of “animal” humans—badgers in Hoban’s case and pigs in Falconer’s—though I think Hoban’s books may have more of a plot line than Falconer’s, insomuch as picture books ever do have a plot. Frances envies her friend’s china tea set, tries to avoid going to bed, experiments with foods previously thought yucky, and so on, while both Eloise and Olivia swan through a given day in something closer to a stream-of-consciousness narrative.

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen

Bear wants his hat back, and questions the various animals he meets along the way as to whether they’ve seen his red, pointy hat. (Keep an eye on the illustrations.) He asks a fox, a frog, a rabbit wearing headgear, a turtle trying to climb a rock, a snake in a tree, and a something or other1, before collapsing in a woebegone heap to wonder if he’ll ever find it again.

…before a sympathetic deer asks him a question that prods him into realizing that he has seen his hat! Bear sprints past the bemused creatures whom he’s met before to confront…the rabbit! The book ends with a squirrel asking the bear, now sitting amid a scatter of crushed branches, whether the bear’s seen a rabbit wearing a hat. The bear says, echoing the rabbit, “No. Why are you asking me. I haven’t seen him I haven’t seen any rabbits anywhere. I would not eat a rabbit. Don’t ask me any more questions.”

No deep morals here, but on the other hand no sentimentality: it’s a bear in search of the hat he’s lost. It’s just fun to read, and to guess what the animals are in the illustrations. The bear’s response to the rabbit’s deed may be upsetting to sensitive kids, and I can see sensitive parents trying to explain to kids just what’s happened to the rabbit. Sensible kids will probably realize that this is made-up; how many talking bears and hat-wearing rabbits have you seen recently? and besides, bears do eat rabbits.

Overall, if the kids are capable of realizing that Beatrix Potter’s stuff isn’t real either, then they’ll be just fine with this. The illustrations are fairly simple, almost cartoon-like, and bear a passing resemblance to Eric Carle’s books.

1I can’t tell what it is from the illustration; does anybody out there know what it is?

Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin

These four seriously groooovvvyy picture books are about an extremely cool Jazz Cat named Pete. And his shoes.

As with many kids books, these are simple to describe though thankfully not saccharine:
     a) in I Love My White Shoes, Pete goes for a stroll during which he steps in strawberries, blueberries, mud and a bucket of water, which turn his shoes–you guess the colors and sing along!
     b) in Rocking in my School Shoes, it’s Pete’s first day of school, during which he goes to class, reads in the library, eats in the lunchroom and plays out in the playground, then goes to tell his mother all about it when she meets him at the bus stop.
     c) Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons isn’t about the buttons exactly, but rather losing them, one by one, and counting down to zero…or has he lost ALL his buttons? Nope. There’s one left; guess what it is? All the buttons are are groovy though, to be sure.
     d) in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas….well, you can guess. Yes, Pete saves Christmas to the general meter of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, except with a jive rhythm.

The illustrations are reminiscent of Eric Carle in their angularity, but frankly Brown Bear and the Very Hungry Caterpillar were never this cool. Ask me again in ten years how popular these still are amongst the story-reading or -listening set, but for now, they’re justifiably popular. They’re bouncy, they’re colorful, they permit audience participation and a chance to work off antsiness by dancing along. There’s even a multimedia campaign over at HarperCollins: Pete The Cat For now, and it is to be hoped for some time to come, they’re great activity books to teach things like colors, basic math skills, what school’s like, and so on.

I would disagree somewhat with Kirkus; it’s actually pretty easy to figure out what the tunes are—I got close without even realizing that the author himself had included audio versions of the songs in the web site promoting these books.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip and Erin Stead

Amos McGee is a zookeeper–based on the illustrations not in the first flush of youth, but with a certain childlike air about him: aside from sleeping with a teddy bear and wearing bunny slippers, every day he asks the sugar bowl for “one spoonful for my oatmeal, and two for my tea”. At the zoo, he plays chess with the elephant, proffers handkerchiefs to the rhinoceros which appropriately1 has a perpetually runny nose, sits quietly with the shy penguin, runs races with the tortoise, and reads bedtime stories to the owl, who’s afraid of the dark.

One day, however, he wakes up with a bad cold/flu and cannot make it to the zoo! Worried at their friend’s absence, his animal friends take that very same bus back to their caretaker’s house, and do for him what he has done for them every day previously: care for him and keep him company. The rhinoceros presents a handkerchief when Amos sneezes, the penguin sits quietly while Amos naps to keep Amos’ feet warm, the tortoise plays hide-and-seek, the owl reads everyone a bedtime story and so on.

As is only appropriate for a book which won the Caldecott, the illustrations are wonderful. I love the illustration for the animals’ trip–animals seated, in an orderly fashion, behind a very nonchalant driver, but the details running through the book are marvelous. A small bird–sparrow? robin?– holding up a “HOORAY” sign as the tortoise crosses the finish line first, a mouse under Amos’ bed holding what is presumably Amos’ pocket watch, a balloon that floats along with the animals when they come to their caretaker’s house, not to mention the mouse waiting at a mouse-sized bus stop and a tie-wearing robin, possibly on his way to HIS job.

It’s a sweet book, though perhaps not for those who look down on anthropomorphic animals. No overwhelming morals, other than “Friends take care of friends.” and nothing scary.

1…and what’s the name for the “cold” virii?

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems

Once upon a time, there were three Dinosaurs: Papa Dinosaur, Mama Dinosaur, and some other Dinosaur who happened to be visiting from Norway. One day for no particular reason, the three Dinosaurs made up their beds, positioned their chairs just so and cooked three bowls of delicious chocolate pudding at varying temperatures.

And so begins Mo Willems’ sendup of that old chestnut, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Not surprisingly, it does follow the basic plot line of the original: Goldilocks comes skipping along through the woods, finds this house empty with a tempting collection of chocolate pudding…

…and that’s where things veer from the plot. Well, further than they have already, aside from the obvious one of swapping out bears for dinosaurs; the Dinosaurs have merely snuck off to hide in a nearby copse to await the arrival of a tasty child for their proper supper. Goldilocks does eat up all the chocolate pudding–what child wouldn’t?–but realizes that not only are the chairs all too big, the beds are too big for her as well.

It is right then that the too-impulsive Dinosaurs burst out with “A few more minutes and she’ll be asleep! Delicious chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons are yummier when they are rested!” Needless to say, that oblivious child Goldilocks hears that! It is at this point that she realizes she’s gotten into the wrong fairy tale, and flees out the back door, fortuitously (for her) left unlocked, just as the Dinosaurs come charging in the front. As with all good fairy tales, Mo Willems finishes with not one but two morals, one for children–“If you find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”–and one for dinosaurs–Lock the back door!

While the illustrations aren’t as sophisticated as in David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, I can see this appealing to the same kids: not necessarily world-weary, but definitely a bit too ‘grown’ for the trite old fairy tales. The Paper Bag Princess, while not a parody of any specific fairy tale as Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs is, does itself fall into that same general group; it pokes fun at all the fairy tales. Mo Willems’ other stories, such as Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, are probably a good place to start for kids who like Willems’ humor and illustration style, though there are other ‘retellings’ of fairy tales that might appeal to kids who like this. For this last, try The Three Bears and Goldilocks, by Margaret Willey, which is told from the bears’ perspective, or Goldilocks and Just One Bear, by Leigh Hodgkinson, set when the Littlest Bear and Goldilocks are grown, and Littlest Bear mistakenly intrudes into Goldilocks’ house.

The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake by Nancy Willard

A girl hopes to replicate her mother’s favorite birthday cake, made for the mother years ago by her grandmother: (yep!) the High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake of the title. Unfortunately, that cake was made with a secret ingredient that only the long since deceased (great-)grandmother knew. Fortunately, the (great-) grandmother left not only her thirty-two notebooks, in which she wrote many recipes, but also a grand piano to her great-granddaughter. In that combination, with the aid of an awkward uncle and a dish of Jello, lies the secret to the High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake: write ‘Evol’ three times in the sugar before mixing it into the batter.

The girl does make the cake, creeping down to the kitchen at midnight to do some baking by moonlight. The cake is a success aromatic enough to bring three angels flying down to the “mortal girl’s” kitchen for some of that heavenly cake. They eat up all the cake–how does one say no to a visitation of a flight of angels?–and only after the cake has been enjoyed, does the little girl cry out that she’d used up all the eggs in the cake just now eaten. How will she make another for her mother’s birthday the next morning?

With a bit of angelic intervention, the mother does get her cake, and best of all it’s an exact replica of that long-ago phantasm perfect birthday cake, complete with golden thimble for luck. Even better, the father’s present is a fluffy white terrycloth bathrobe, fluffy as a cloud; he having a long history of inept presents–a dress the wrong size, a large red purse quickly exchanged for a small green purse, a teapot shaped like a cat which cracked around the bottom when filled with tea for the first time. (Sense a little more angelic intervention for that present as well? Yep, that’s how I’d bet too.)

Definitely kudos for Richard Watson’s including angels of different ethnicity in his illustrations, and one with (gasp) laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. (Willard’s text doesn’t specify the angels’ physical appearance, only that one is big, one medium and one smallest.) I also appreciate the idea of a “Big Box of Dreadfuls”, where the family has put “stuff we don’t want but we’re afraid to throw away”–this is where the thirty-two notebooks have been stored but also ghastly presents from people that you don’t want to offend.

Overall, I’d describe the book as being the literary equivalent of a good angel food cake: light, delicious/amusing, but ultimately a light-weight bit of fluff. The story’s perhaps a bit flimsy, but that’s only appropriate for a book about what is, after all, angel food cake; it’s definitely an enjoyable confection of a book, airy as the real thing. As long as you don’t mind angels who speak in slightly stilted English. I’m not sure about the recipe for angel food cake included in the book; while the ‘secret ingredient’ is clearly only a plot device, the recipe itself doesn’t include vanilla. Perhaps that’s a modern addition?