Friday, October 2, 2015

2016 Contenders: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones

I can't remember the last time I saw Daniel Pinkwater blurb a book. Of course, this one is not only about chickens (a special interest for Pinkwater) - it even name checks Pinkwater and his 1977 classic, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. That has to be flattering. Still, Pinkwater is such a grouchy old coot that I have to believe he wouldn't praise a book unless he meant it. Of Unusual Chickens, he wrote, "Someone has finally written a real honest-to-goodness novel with chickens!  This news will excite people who like novels, people who like chickens...and chickens.  It is an unusual book!"

That it is. Sort of. On one level, the plot is a familiar one: a city girl moves to the country and struggles to fit in and make friends. In this case, the city girl, Sophie, and her mother are two of the only "brown people" in town (they are Latina), which only increases her feelings of alienation. They've left the city because Sophie's newly unemployed father has inherited a farm from his uncle, and along with it, several "unusual" chickens. 

That's where the other side of the story comes in. The chickens are not unusual in the "Martha Stewart, tiny-pastel-egg-laying" sense, but more in the "turn raccoons into stone and levitate the chicken coop" sense. Clearly, their care calls for an exceptional poultry farmer. Sophie's quest to become that farmer parallels her inner journey as she adjusts to her new surroundings. Of course, since we are dealing with supernatural chickens, there are many absurd and comedic stops along the way. 

First-time novelist Kelly Jones tells Sophie's story mostly through letters to her deceased grandmother, her great-uncle, and Agnes, the farmer who originally sold the unusual chickens. This farmer occasionally writes back, in letters whose erratic spelling and punctuation she blames on a malfunctioning typewriter (this may be a ruse - the unraveling of Agnes's mystery provides one of the more entertaining threads of this tale). The candid first-person narration allows Sophie's practical, wry, tween voice to shine through, and it is an appealing and authentic voice. There's a nice balance between supernatural comedy and real world concerns, and Katie Kath's line drawings play up the humor. 

Unusual Chickens is a small gem of a book, written with a light touch and a sensitive heart. I'll be surprised if it doesn't show up on the Notable Books list, though it's probably a long shot for the Newbery. 

Published in May 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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