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Blue Chicken

I have been hauling around a copy of Blue Chicken for at least four months. Something about that big-footed little yellow duck and her chicken friend on the cover and the streaks and drips of blue, blue, blue kept me returning to it.

Here we have two barns,  an unfinished farm scene painting resting on a table and the other a real barn through the window.  That window helps ease the young reader into a story that mixes reality and fantasy. Using some of the meta-fictive techniques we have seen from David Wiesner in The Three Pigs  and with a healthy nod to Harold and his crayon, the chicken topples the lidless paint jar to help “finish” that painting left on the work table. The blue paint splatters, spreads, and covers the whole painting, upsetting the animals, who are now wide awake and in distress. Luckily, our little chicken spies a jar of water (or turpentine) and uses her strength and her ducky assistant to topple that too, cleaning up the mess. Mostly.

This is high energy at its happiest and I smile every time I read this one.

Now, here is where I reveal that I am secretly just like my literal-minded second graders. I want my pretend world to make sense.

SO, the second grader in me has some questions: How did the blue paint, after being cleaned up, remain only in the sky and not on the other white places? Why did the artist leave her valuable paintbrushes submerged upside-down in the water jar?  Why would the artist carefully close the red jar of paint and not the blue? Where is the yellow paint? How did our feathered pals unscrew the jar of red paint?

One other thing, since I am on a roll here–is there such a thing as too many words in a picture book? If so, this already spare text still seems a little wordy.  There is some redundancy between text and illustration. For instance, on the page where the paint is spreading, the text says, “She’s toppled the BLUE. And the spilled blue is spreading. Till the ground grows blue too!”  The illustrations do not extend the text.  Those of you who dislike wordless books will likely disagree with me, but a couple of the other spreads would have been fun (better?)  with no words at all.

Speaking of wordy, this is.

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Rebecca Hachmyer says:

    Usually I am a stickler about unnecessary wordiness in picturebooks (I had a lot to say about Amos McGee) but in this case I didn’t mind the text because, in my mind, it reads like exactly what an adult reader would say when exploring the book with a child (if it were wordless). So the narrator is describing the illustrations with a specific voice–the voice of the reader. (This is perhaps another metafictive element?) Overall Blue Chicken doesn’t beat out All the Water in the World in my book but it’s still top three…. well, top five at least =)

  2. Sam Bloom says:

    I loved this book upon my first read, but now you’ve given me a lot to think about, Robin! I’m hoping I can go back and take a look at it tomorrow…

  3. And I want to know what you think!

  4. Lolly Robinson says:

    I’m coming to this post late and I don’t have the book in front of me. MY literal-minded self had a problem with the way all that blue paint got cleaned up all with water. There’s a look that watercolor has when it’s still sitting on top of the paper and hasn’t started to sink into the fiber. At that point you CAN clean it up with water and a good paper towel. But the blue paint shown in the picture had (of course) gone beyond that stage and was sinking into the paper and drying, so all the water in the world (!) couldn’t clean it up by then.

    I guess overall I like the idea of this book more than I like the execution of it. I’d still recommend it to kids who want to stretch their brains around this kind of idea, but it’s not in that ultra-elite top 10 list for me.

  5. As someone who is extremely nitpicky about my children’s books – especially middle grade fiction! – I can see where you guys are coming from with your concerns. It is definitely a different experience for me to look at a picture book with the same level of scrutiny as is needed for someone on the Caldecott committee, but my question is: how much does a pretend world in a picture book for young people *really* have to make sense? I’m thinking back to some of my favorite picture books (I know, I know… I’m not supposed to compare with previous years, but I’m only doing this to try to wrap my head around this question)… I must say, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me that Ned was able to travel all the way to his surprise birthday party without getting mauled by the tigers, or impaled on the pitchfork, or eaten by sharks, etc. And how do zoo animals walk out of the zoo during the middle of the afternoon, catch the No 5 bus, and find their way to their good friend’s house? And would a little dog really be able to keep a live pig, duck, cat and *cow* inside its… belly? vocal chords?… without looking a bit bloated?

    Does it matter so much that the chicken is able to clean up the mess so well (and that the blue magically appears only in the sky), or is the illustrator just trying to send a message that accidents happen and they can be fixed? By my reckoning, if these illustrations are able to come to life, then it stands to reason that they can also unscrew two containers of paint, clean it up, etc. I don’t know, am I crazy?

    By the way, I’m completely taken with Freedman’s use of perspective – you’re right, Robin, in comparing this to Wiesner in terms of the meta aspect, but I also see shades of 3 Pigs in the way Freedman is able to pop those barnyard critters right off the page!

  6. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thanks for a good laugh, Sam! You raise interesting points here and it’s never a good idea for those of us in this field to take things too seriously!

    My issue with this book is that it’s about illusions and the illustrator uses two clearly delineated styles, one of which involves a fair amount of what I would call trompe l-oeil if I wasn’t suddenly self conscious about sounding too serious. So I want there to be as much accuracy and eye-fooling as possible in that part of the book because I do think kids can be literal minded about this kind of thing. If it was something like Harold and the Purple Crayon — i.e. all simply drawn — it wouldn’t bother me at all.

  7. Sam Bloom says:

    Okay, Lolly, now I see. But first I had to look up [i]trompe l-oeil,[/i] and spend a few (i.e., 20-30) minutes looking at examples online. I never knew what that illusion was called, but I’ve always loved that kind of thing, so thanks for giving me a name for it! Of course, my French pronunciation is horrible, and I’ve wasted a bunch of work time… but if you won’t tell, I won’t either!

    Once I go back and look at it, though, I can see your complaint as clear as day. The only part that really was jarring to me (as I believe it was to you, too, Lolly) was the fact that all the sudden the sky was blue, and it wasn’t even (to my eye) the same blue as the paint. But I still love the book as a whole and it is actually in my personal top 10 as of right now. Anyway, thanks for the lesson, Lolly!

  8. Sam Bloom says:

    Oops, pardon my misuse of html tags in the first line above… *blushes*

  9. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Sam’s comments (both before and after mine) have me thinking more and more. One thing I really like about this book is how smart it is. Smarter than me, in that I had to read it several times to figure it all out. AND it’s funny and doesn’t take itself super-seriously. Those two qualities combined (smart and casually funny) are big attractions for me, both in people and in books.

  10. I had the same issue with the paint clean-up. To me it’s a different issue than whether illustrated chickens can come to life or a cow can live inside a dog – in the world of the book, illustrated things can come to life, but it’s a book about illustrations and illustrating, which means that the rules of paint and paper should apply to ground the story. The paint spreads realistically (to me, at least – I’m not a watercolor expert) but isn’t cleaned up realistically, which took me out of the story.

    However, apart from that, I thought it was fabulous and clever and beautifully illustrated – the kind of story that you want to read through a few times to “get” all the visual jokes. I do love the book, but I think these internal logic issues would hurt it when we’re talking about the Caldecott.

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