Review of the Day: The Little Red Hen - An Old Fable
Yeah yeah yeah. We all know the story. Hen does all the work then eats all the food. To be blunt with you, it’s very difficult to read a Little Red Hen story without flashing back to Jon Scieszka’s frantic fowl in “The Stinky Cheese Man”. Sometimes, though, an author/illustrator team manages to hit all the right notes on a classic tale and a person's post-modern snarkiness is thrown out on its ear. You can keep your Paul Galdones. You can keep your Jerry Pinkneys. The Little Red Hen story I’m going to put my money on from here on in is by Heather Forest and Susan Gaber and devil take the consequences.
You've all heard the tale before so I’ll just summarize it quickly here. In this version you have your Little Red Hen (who evokes hen-ness with every step) as well as a cat, a dog, and a mouse. She plants wheat, farms it, takes it to the mill, and bakes it into a cake. Does anyone else help? Nope. Every time she asks (and she gives them more than one chance, to be fair) they answer in the negative. Then she bakes a delicious you-can-smell-it-off-the-page chocolate cake and surprise surprise, suddenly she’s everyone’s best friend. But it’s no cake for you, layabout critters. Having learned their lesson the other animals now help the hen when she asks them and cake is had by all.
Now I’m a fan of corgis. Call me a Queen Elizabeth wannabe, but I just think they’re the sweetest looking breed of pup available on the market today. A few children’s book illustrators have put their mark on that particular brand of doggie as well. It’s hard to imagine anyone aside from Tasha Tudor including a corgi in a story, so credit Susan Gaber for her vision. Now, Gaber’s thick paints in this story evoke a kind of early Americana classic look. The colors are vibrant and stand out when it really matters. Best of all, Gaber works in all kinds of amazing images in the story. There’s a moment when the Red Hen looks seriously peeved, her eyelids closed at half-mast, her beak set in a moue of barely contained distain for her lazy companions. Each painting contains just the right amount of energy and action, but the artist never makes the animals look like anything but real animals. When the Red Hen cuts the grain she does it with her beak. When she pulls it to the mill it drags behind her in a sack tied from her neck. And not an opposable thumb to be seen. If there’s a flaw with these pictures, it actually goes back to that deliciously adorable corgi I mentioned earlier. What’s cuter than a corgi pup? A corgi pup with a blue blanket, of course! Problem is, Gaber got addicted to the pup with blanket image. Once was sweet. Twice still elicited an “awww.” But about the fourth or fifth time it appeared in a picture you began to wonder if the blue blanket carried a significance above and beyond the basic Little Red Hen storytime. Is this the corgi version of Linus from “Peanuts”? If so, should we worry about the corgi’s deep dark past and why it feels it needs a blue blanket for constant comfort? So many questions. So few answers.
And you know what was great about this book? Nobody gets cake! Not at first, anyway. Some Little Red Hen books don’t carry the courage of their convictions and in spite of the fellow animals’ laziness, the Red Hen shares with a kind of help-next-time message which TOTALLY ruins the point of the book. Not Forest & Gaber. There’s an image of the Hen perched atop her newly baked pastry wielding a cake cutting instrument of some sort like it was a samurai sword. With an expression I can only describe as fierce, the dog and cat are reflected in the silver instrument as she makes it very clear that there will be no sharing of the delicious chocolate gateaux today. Of course, this being the twenty-first century, Forest still felt it was necessary to show future situations in which the other animals, having learned their lesson, help with the baking alongside the phrase, “Now when the little red hen wants to bake, everyone helps to make the cake.” Yeah, well maybe. But it’s the picture of a cake cutter clenched in the claw of a seriously peeved chicken that’s gonna stick in children’s minds everywhere, I can tell you that. Plus the author and illustrator resisted the all too common urge to give the Little Red Hen some chicks (which other versions do so that audiences could see that she shared with SOMEBODY). I’ve never approved of this change to the story, and I applaud Forest & Gaber for resisting.
The story is nicely told, reading out rather nicely. I should note that if you’re looking for a good storytime version of this tale, this is probably the best you’ll find. The pictures are easy to see, even from a distance, and you can get the kids to repeat the “Not I” motif of the lazy animals who don’t want to help the hen. Little Red Hens come and Little Red Hens go, but this book got “KEEPER” stamped all over it. Beautiful fun stuff.