Review of the Day: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?
Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?
By Jon Agee, Tedd Arnold, Harry Bliss, David Catrow, Marla Frazee, Jerry Pinkney, Chris Raschka, Judy Schachner, David Shannon, and Mo Willems
Dial Books (an imprint of Penguin)
On shelves now
There are some jokes out there that are so classic they’ve passed the point where they’re funny anymore. Knock-knock jokes fall into this category. Light bulb jokes too. And then there’s the best one of them all. Why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road jokes. Boy oh boy you just can’t make anyone laugh with one of those anymore, can you? Well that’s the way my thinking would have gone had I not picked up a bizarre little picture book title by the same name. In this book fourteen different children’s illustrators are each granted a two-page spread to offer their answer to this, the oldest of questions. No two answers are exactly alike and no two illustrators have styles even vaguely similar. It makes for a book that kids will adore, grown-ups will pore over, and incipient illustrators will want to keep very close at hand.
So why did the chicken cross the road? The answer may surprise you. Marla Frazee, illustrator of things like Roller Coaster, and the recent smash hit, Walk On: A Guide For Babies, shows a determined chicken crossing a road away from a rain-soaked gray-skied chicken coop towards a blue-skied brightly colored fun-factory of a building. Her single thought: “duh”. Turn the page and Mo Willems has taken an entirely different tack. In the gloom of a police department some hard-boiled cops are giving a very nervous chicken (note the number of eggs under its chair) the third degree. The chicken itself is insisting that “I just did it to get to the other side! Honest!”. To one side a detective is pouring the contents of a significant looking charcoal bag onto a grill. The entire book is like this. David Shannon taps into a vein not dissimilar from his beloved Duck On a Bike to show us chicken at the wheel of a fancy red convertible. Flip further through the book and you see pictures by everyone from the great Jerry Pinkney to the far-out Mary Grandpre and the more than slightly twisted machinations of David Catrow. Here you may find more answers than you ever could have thought up yourself.
The great joy of a book like this is that it also serves to introduce people to hitherto unknown illustrators. I remembered most of the people from this book before, but then there were people like Chris Sheban who’d entirely escaped my notice in the past. Mr. Sheban’s picture is an evocative piece where one chicken has accidentally hit a baseball over another chicken’s head and into a window. The two stand poised in a kind of frozen shock as late afternoon light seeps over the suburban scene. Or there was Judy Schachner who’s tiny-brained chick, “wasn’t just free range ... she was de-ranged!”. I suppose my favorite pictures in here were from people who seemingly were working in unexpected ways. Take Jon Agee as your example. If you’ve seen his Terrific or The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau then you are aware of his clean lines and sparse palette. Now consider a picture that consists of cars, people, dogs, pigs, motorcyclists, buses, etc. fleeing from three hungry look dinosaurs. And perched on the side of the road, not immediately apparent to the eye, stands a lone chicken. Or consider Harry Bliss. I was used to his New Yorker-like picture books like, Don’t Forget To Come Back that tend to have an innate sophistication to them. The last thing I would have expected was for him to come up with the answer, “Ask the mutated zombie chickens from Mars!”. But you know what? It works.
Children’s illustrators banding together to put together a book... it’s not a new concept is it? I mean, you can always find books like, Oz: The Hundredth Anniversary Celebration or The Art of Reading: Forty Illustrator’s Celebrate RIF’s 40th Anniversary. The problem with those titles, though, is that they’re really not produced with kids in mind. Far rarer is the picture book filled with different illustrators that kids might recognize and love. I’m not saying it’s never happened before. But name me three such books off the top of your head and I’ll be mighty impressed, if not utterly blown away. No, sir, this is an original idea and a classy little work. Consider this book to be an essential addition to any picture book collection. Funny and fabulous.
On shelves now.