Review of the Day: The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice N. Harrington
The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Shelley Jackson. A Melanie Kroupa Book (an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Girioux). $16.00.
I have some bad news. Your jobs, as you know it, are in peril. I will explain. Now we all know that librarians are inherently cool. You can’t be a purveyor of information and NOT be cool. It’s part of the occupation. And that was fine and all until SOME of them started writing children’s books. It started off slowly enough. You’d read a fun book and have the vague sense of, “Oh, how neat. This person also knows their Dewey Decimal System,” and that would be the end of it. Recently, however, it’s exploded onto the marketplace. One minute a librarian is winning the Newbery and the next you’ve something like “The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County,” by Janice N. Harrington sitting in front of you. And author Janice N. Harrington isn’t just a librarian. She’s a professional storyteller too. Ooo. Double threat. Until now her picture books have been gaining a little attention here and there. Some of you may even remember her 2004 title, Going North, which won her the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award and proceeded to nab good review after good review. Well she’s back, baby, and whatta follow-up it is too. Owing much of its tastiness to illustrator Shelley Jackson alongside words that flow like honey-dipped silk, Harrington is going to give children’s authors everywhere a run for their money. I suggest you all consider getting your MLIS degrees pronto.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you the Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County. Now bear in mind that this gal isn’t exactly popular when it comes to that particular title. Big Mama doesn’t like her chickens getting all hepped-up since it mucks with their egg production. Our heroine doesn’t care one bit about that, though. She’s the best chicken-chaser on the planet, though there’s one particular fowl she’s been eyeing for some time. The bird’s name is Miss Hen and she’s a beaut. “Her feathers are shiny as a rained-on roof. She has high yellow stockings and long-fingered feet, and when she talks – ‘Pruck! Pruck! Pruck! – it sounds like pennies falling on a dinner plate.” Our hero is determined to catch this bird if it’s the last thing she does, but when she finally discovers Miss Hen’s hiding spot and secret, the greatest chicken-chaser of Lamar County has a change of heart and a whole new goal in life.
I’ve an especial fondness for children’s books where the author has taken the time to get a little onomatopoetic on the reader. For example, the chickens in this book don’t say “cluck” or “cock-a-doodle-doo”. No, they say “Pruck! Pruck! Pruck,” and, as chicks, “Pee-o, pee-o, pee-o.” Fortunately for everyone, Ms. Harrington’s prose is choice. This book begs you to read it aloud. Readalouds, I would like to point out, are tricky devils. Most picture books don’t come up to snuff. Either the words are good and the pictures difficult to see at a distance or the pictures are remarkable and the words dull as dishwater. Neither is the case here. In this book every line rolls off the tongue bee-utifully, belying Ms. Harrington’s storytelling roots. Plus, the plum good spirits of the book also make it that much more enjoyable to read.
So far illustrator Shelley Jackson’s been flying low on the radar in the children’s literary world. In the adult fiction world, however, she’s… well… basically she kicks ass and takes names. Remember that project where an entire novel was tattooed, one word apiece, on the skin of volunteers? Not only is that still going on (1,850 participants as of this writing) it was her idea. You may even have read her novels, Half Life, or, Patchwork Girl. For all of that, her children’s books haven’t gotten their fair share of recognition; a fact that could well change with this latest book. In pairing her with Harrington we get a title that charms you from the cover onwards. Using a mix of paint and mixed-media, Jackson fashions chickens out of everything from graph paper and carpet snatches to money, lined paper, fabric, and god knows what-all. Photographs of worms, cornbread and warm “goldy-brown” eggs swirl about our heroine’s head. Words encompass every font, coming together like particularly well-honed ransom notes. All that aside, her painting in and of itself is excellent. From the girl’s look of pure-eyed wonder when she sees Ms. Hen with a healthy brood to her manic lunges at unsuspecting poultry, this kid feels real. I have also never seen chickens look quite so smug. Remarkable.
Basically, if I’m going to chose my favorite chicken book of 2007, the Misses Harrington and Jackson get my vote. Last year the prize went to John Himmelman’s, Chickens to the Rescue, which would actually pair beautifully with this sly little book considering how well they both read aloud. You could create your own chicken-centric storytime with the lot of them. All that aside, consider this a must-purchase and a spectacular book. It has my vote as one of the cleverest titles of the year (and, as an afterthought, kids are going to enjoy it quite a lot as well).
On shelves March 20th.
Website Notes: If you’ve half a mind to do so, check out Shelley Jackson's website. I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that she does children’s books in alongside her other work. NOT that she touts them on her homepage (consarn it).