Recommended For Kids

August 01, 2000 4 min read

HENNY-PENNY, retold and illustrated by Jane Wattenberg. (Scholastic, $15.95; K- 2.) Over the years, picture-book illustrators and wordsmiths have had great fun recycling this and other tales, fables, and nursery rhymes from the kiddy-lit canon. These stories never seem to get old—perhaps because they never get told or illustrated the same way twice. And the retellings and the accompanying artwork are getting zanier and zanier.

Among those taking the genre to hilarious heights in recent years are Anne Miranda and Janet Stevens with their 1997 gem To Market, To Market; Kathryn Lasky and David Catrow with The Emperor’s Old Clothes from last year; and Stevens and her sister Susan Stevens Crummel with the scrumptious Cook-A-Doodle-Doo!, a takeoff on the Little Red Hen story, also from last year. With this, her first picture book, graphic artist Wattenberg joins esteemed company.

The story is a familiar one, first popularized a century ago by the English folklorist Joseph Jacobs. When an acorn falls from a tree and beans barnyard chicken Henny-Penny— in some versions of the story, it’s Chicken Little, in others Chicken Licken— she fears the sky is falling and races off to tell the king. Along the way, she meets a number of other gullible birds—Cocky-Locky, Ducky-Lucky, Goosey-Loosey, and Turkey-Lurkey—who join the mission. Their journey ends abruptly, however, when the group throws caution to the wind and follows Foxy-Loxy, who has promised a shortcut. Naturally, the fox leads the birds not to the king but to his den, where he devours them.

Wattenberg generally sticks to the conventional tale but has a field day with the language. She fuels the narrative with rhythm and rhyme, injecting hip phrases, puns, and idioms. When Cocky-Locky asks Henny-Penny “What’s clickin’, chicken?” she replies: “Shake, rattle, and roll! The sky is falling! It’s coming on down! I’m lickety-split to tell the king.” Wattenberg also adds a couple of new birds to the familiar group; “Glam gal” Goosey-Loosey, for example, is joined by “that he-hunk” Gander-Lander. And while Wattenberg’s denouement is every bit as gruesome as the traditional ending, it contains a charitable surprise that only accentuates the foolishness of the birds.

But retellings are mostly vehicles for illustrators, and this one is no exception. Wattenberg’s text may be punchy and cool, but her extravagant photo collages are the main attraction. They are loud, flashy, garish—in a word, wonderful. She uses sharp, close-up photos of real-life birds and places them in unusual landscapes and settings around the world: in a cactus-strewn desert, at the pyramids, near the Taj Mahal, on the Acropolis. These birds may have an urgent message for the king, but they clearly have no idea where to find him, let alone who he is. Wattenberg laces many of the spreads with curious details and signs that are likely to get both youngsters and adults thinking. Are they metaphoric nuances or simply graphic flourishes?

Purists who prefer their classics unembellished may find Wattenberg’s treatment of this rich tale sacrilegious, but kids will think it’s a blast.

—Blake Hume Rodman

BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE,by Kate DiCamillo. (Candlewick Press, $15.99; grades 3-6.) A story about a 10- year-old, her dog, and the loneliness she suffers as the new kid in town may not seem very special, but this one is. Because of Winn-Dixie is the rare book that moves us with a direct appeal to our deepest feelings and strongest emotions. The pain of loss, the confusion of love, the warmth of friendship, and, most of all, the improbable magic of connecting with others—it’s all here.

India Opal Buloni (everyone calls her Opal), and her father, a Baptist minister whom she affectionately refers to as “the preacher,” are all each other has in the world when they move to Naomi, Florida. Mostly they share the unspoken pain of the loss of Opal’s mother, who left them when Opal was 3 years old, never to be heard from again. The girl sees how this absence affects her father and can’t bring herself to ask him the million questions she has about her mother.

Then, one day, Opal happens to be at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store when a scruffy stray dog gets loose in the vegetable aisle. As she watches the dog wreak havoc, her heart melts when he looks at her and smiles. She knows she must rescue the dog from the angry store manager, so she names and adopts him on the spot.

With Winn-Dixie at her side, Opal gets to know some of the residents of Naomi: gentle Otis, who works at the pet store but has a passion for music; Miss Franny Block, a candy magnate heir who is also the town librarian and loves to tell stories; Gloria Dump, an old lady believed to be a child-eating witch who really prefers peanut butter sandwiches; and the seemingly snooty Amanda, another kid hiding painful memories.

Caring for Winn-Dixie becomes another thing that Opal shares with her father, and the dog helps them see that, although they miss Opal’s mother, they are truly blessed to have each other. Opal brings all these lonely people together for a summer evening party, and her father provides the blessing, thanking God “for warm summer nights and candlelight and good food” as well as “the complicated and wonderful gifts you give us in each other.”

—Stephen Del Vecchio