Review of the Day: Three French Hens
I know, I know. It's very weird writing a review of a holiday book in February. I should probably put it off until the right time of year. But I'm slowly working my way through the books that made it on the New York Public Library's 100 Books For Reading and Sharing List and this one is right up there. I can't agree with the decision to put it on the list (as the review attests) but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. Decide amongst yourselves...
When I was a child, no children’s illustrator ever freaked me out quite as effectively as Richard Egielski. I will explain. Does the title, “Louis the Fish” ring any bells? How about “Hey, Al”? Egielski is one of those illustrators who’s style seemingly does not change until you compare the authors he’s worked with. When Egielski worked with Arthur Yorinks the result was freaky/creepy/wonderful picture books that somehow tapped into their child readers’ subconscious minds. These days, however, Egielski is far more likely to be seen pairing with authors like Margie Palatini. Palatini and Egielski both worked on “The Web Files”, a perfectly nice but peculiar “Dragnet” ala the preschool set book. “Three French Hens” is yet another interesting title though this one is running far more along the lines of a kinder-aged “Trading Spaces” with some holiday cheer for spice.
It’s the third day of Christmas and a lovely mademoiselle from Paris has sent her true love three French hens. Though the fellow receiving this gift lives on 3 Rue de Margie in Paris, the birds end up lost en route and stuck in the unclaimed mail department of New York City. Intrepid fowl they be, so they reason that since they were bound for a Philippe Renard, in English they must locate a Phil Fox. Enter Phil. Phil lives in the Bronx in a dumpy apartment with only a cockroach for companionship. He’s also starving and the appearance of three plump French hens at his doorstep whets his whistle considerably. Before he can pop any one of the three into his mouth, however, he is whisked into a bath by Colette, has his place redesigned by Poulette, and has a magnificent French dinner prepared by Fifi. Guiltily, Phil confesses that he is not Philippe Renard at all. Of course the hens do not care. They are his friends and the four go off to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah (the hens are kosher) in a cart in the park.
You can’t knock Egielski’s work on this one. When we first see Phil his pants are held up by a rope, his fur is clumped and natty, and his ears askew. A little pampering later and you can see that even his tail has become full and silky under the hens’ care. Egielski excels at details. For example, the hens ride the subway perched on the bar attached to the ceiling. I was also rather attached to Fifi’s leather and sunglasses riding outfit. The artist also avoids making a mistake many children’s book illustrators make. He doesn’t put the chickens on a wrongly lettered or numbered subway train. You laugh but there are hundreds of children’s books out there that make this very mistake day in and day out.
On a first read-through I was enchanted by the tale. Fun is the word for it. There are plenty of picture books out there where the hungry predator comes to care for its potential prey. The best known right off the top of my head would have to be “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew” by Keiko Kasza. That kind of story can be a lot of fun. Then I read “Three French Hens” through a second time and I noticed something. Now, many children you’ll meet (at least when they are young) are literalists. They want a book to make sense, even if that means making the fantastical logical. If something magical happens, that’s fine, but they’re going to want to be told that it IS magic. In the case of “Three French Hens” we have a very poverty stricken fox. According to the text, “the poor fellow hadn’t had a square meal in months”. The three chickens waltz in with only their bags and suddenly the house has scented candles, an entirely new wardrobe for Phil, a snazzy redecorated crib, and more food (of the French persuasion) than you could shake a drumstick at. So where do all these riches come from? Could it be magic? Did the chickens go out and buy stuff on their own while the fox was in the bath? Palatini is reluctant to say. Reluctant heck, she’s outright refusing to explain. So when the five-year-old perched on your lap turns to you and asks, “Where did they get all that food?”, you’re going to be pretty hard pressed to give an answer. It’s especially odd when Phil takes one of the presents under the tree and tries to give it to the chickens. Didn’t they just give that box to him by coming up with Christmas presents in the first place? I can hear your little brains ah-grinding and they’re telling me to lighten up. This is just a picture book for kids (and a fun one at that). Why am I nit-picking little details like these? I’m nit-picking, dear ones, because Palatini could’ve solved these questions with a single sentence of explanation. The chickens are heiresses or they plundered the nearby Goodwill and spruced up the place. Anything would have done, but nothing was. So we have a nice but flawed book. A very big pity, that.
There were some unsaid assumptions to this story as well, by the way. If the chickens are being sent to someone named Philippe Renard, should we assume that had they not met up with Phil Fox they would have been eaten anyway? They are being sent by a cat, after all. Logic would dictate ... but no matter. It’s still a fun book and if your toddler can get over the obvious inconsistencies in the plot then this is bound to be a holiday favorite for years to come. In spite of my own qualms, I loved it. It’s got a lot of heart and such a good natured spirit that you’ll have a hard time disliking it.