SILLY CHICKEN by Rukhsana Khan. Viking Juvenile. March 2005. Hardcover, 32 pages. Ages 4-8. $15.99.
Rukhsana Khan has written another heart-warming book for young readers. Silly Chicken can be compared to her previous picture book Ruler of the Courtyard, which also features a girl in a Pakistani village. In this book too, chickens help resolve the emotions of the heroine. The text of Silly Chicken is conversational, whereas the text of Ruler of the Courtyard had a lyrical quality. The story line is sparser in the latter though the two books are delightfully simple and the narratives evolve with apparent effortlessness.
The story begins with Rani telling the reader that her mother likes her hen, Bibi, better than her. Her mother fusses over the hen and the bird follows her mother around the yard. Every little favor her mother shows Bibi is met with a sharp twinge of envy.
“Somehow that silly hen has wormed her way in,” she tells the reader. She can’t tolerate it when her mother uses her old dress to build a nest for the bird. Rani reacts with displeasure when Bibi is praised for being clever. She thinks the opposite is true.
Khan has a knack for drawing out her protagonists’ emotions. The obvious implied comparison in this story is of a child jealous of a younger sibling. In Rani’s case, she is an only child and her father is dead. Her jealousy and irritation build up as the story progresses. When her mother isn’t around, she tells the hen she’d like to cook her. One day, she and her mother take a tonga to visit her father’s grave. When they return, they can’t find Bibi anywhere though they search hard. The ending is sure to surprise readers and show that jealousy isn’t exclusive to children.
Rani narrates the tale with a voice that spills out her emotion, engages our empathy, and conveys her intelligence. Each sentence is loaded with meaning. She draws us close to her plight and pleasures. We feel present in each scene, not as eavesdroppers, but as confidants.
The illustrator, Yunmee Kyong, matches the simplicity of the text with her childlike pictures. She uses plenty of different colors to portray rustic life in Pakistan, adding to the vividness of the story. With her two-dimensional pictures, she succeeds in capturing the characters’ surprise as well the nuances of expressions that depict Rani’s and her mother’s range of emotions. Though the publisher targets the book to ages 4-8, Kyong’s illustrations pander to the younger end, which the book is best suited for.
Khan demonstrates that girls and boys who live in simpler surroundings have the time and ability to examine their emotions. City children will revel in dipping into the pages of a world where the pace is more leisurely. The writer knows all children yearn to connect with nature, which is why children’s literature abounds with animal characters. One wonders whether there will be more chick lit from her and what emotion she will focus on next.