A perfect picture book is a rare thing. So much of what gets published is forgettable; poorly illustrated, drearily unoriginal productions that pander to popular tastes, however fleeting. Not to despair. There are children’s picture book illustrators, writers and publishers hell-bent on bringing excellence to the table with original stories, inventive language, gut-busting humour, and as I’ve said many times before, the most beautiful art to be found anywhere, in any venue. The current purveyer of picture book perfection is French illustrator Béatrice Rodriguez and her crew of animal adventurists, including a determined hen and the fox who sweeps her off her claws, a loyal but easily fatigued bear, his rabbit companion, and one mightily ticked-off rooster. Characters such as these cannot be contained to one book, and I am happy to report that Rodriguez has extended their adventures to two more rollicking tales, and the result is a trilogy of wordless picture books amongst the best to be published this, or any year. The Chicken Thief arrived first in 2010, followed by Fox and Hen Together in spring 2011 and finally, Rooster’s Revenge, to be hatched this September. I haven’t been this excited about a trilogy of books since Philip Pullman put armour on polar bears.
As the young and newly-partnered can attest, setting up a home is expensive and provisions can be sparse. In the opening scene of Fox and Hen Together, Fox is standing in the light of an empty fridge, questioning his lady Hen. She is cradling their freshly layed egg in her wings. A crab at the feet of Fox is the obvious solution to their problem, but apparently the crustacean is a friend of the family, not half a surf n’ turf. Both stare at Hen. Seeking a solution to their dilemma, Hen kisses the egg goodbye, hands it to Fox, and sets off on a journey with Crab and her fishing pole to find food. Not quite sure why Fox can’t do the grocery run, but as there is nothing traditional about their roles or their relationship, there is no reason to expect the story to play out in the usual way either. Suffice to say, a giant bird of prey and a sea serpent ‘complicate’ the fishing expedition, and as in The Chicken Thief, someone is threatened with a frying pan. Fox and Hen Together is a scream. A beautiful, wacky, scream. In spite of the fact that Béatrice Rodriguez’ characters are simple line drawings, she somehow manages to embue them with a huge amount of warmth and personality. You really feel Hen’s determination and later, her anger. It’s all in the teeth. I was under the impression that hen’s teeth are pretty rare, but of course, this is no ordinary hen.
Rooster’s Revenge takes place not long after the discovery that Hen and Fox are a couple. The intrepid team of Bear, Rabbit, and the aforementioned ill-tempered rooster set sail for home in their dinghy. The adventure that follows is to say the least, odd. It’s like the Incredible Journey as directed by Tim Burton, or perhaps Sid and Marty Krofft. Following an encounter with a giant wave that capsizes their boat, the trio wash ashore on a mysterious island and are immediately carried off to a cave on the backs of turtles.
The turtle procession is one of the funnier scenes in the book, and the humour is accomplished in just a few lines and a wash of twilight watercolour as the exhausted bear and rabbit sprawl over the turtle shells, which they think are rocks. The rooster, steadfast in his snit, stays perched on the back of a turtle, alert and full of annoyance. As the only one awake, he is the first to spot the egg, glowing green and nestled beside the skeleton of a strange creature. Delighted with the parental opportunity presenting itself in the form of an unhatched hatchling, Rooster grabs the orb and merrily abandons his crew. Bear and Rabbit pursue the slightly crazed rooster through a surreal landscape of incandescent salamanders and giant mushrooms. (I get it, this is Three-mile Island.) Understandably, Rooster feels threatened by his sudden good fortune. After all, his hen was ‘stolen’ by the fox, so now he is protecting ‘his’ egg with paranoid glee. But of course, as we learned in the original Chicken Thief, these guys ultimately have each other’s feathered and furred backs. Family, however unconventional, is family.
It amazes me that so much is accomplished so simply. There are no words, and yet in each of the books, the story is conveyed with an energy and attention to detail that is worthy of a much longer tale. By the end of the Rooster’s Revenge, and indeed, even at the end of The Chicken Thief, the characters have become distinct personalities, and each are changed in some way by the events around them. What is especially amusing is how flinty they are, how ready to act and react on impulse, sometimes prematurely, and quite often with a frying pan. It doesn’t matter how many times I read the books, the unlikely predicaments visited upon these characters make me laugh. It is therefore quite fitting that Béatrice Rodriguez creates a unique visual world for her unusual stories, combining gorgeous and at times ethereal watercolour backgrounds with cartoon-like line drawings of the characters and the foreground details. This is particularly true in Rooster’s Revenge with the shadow-laden interior of the cave in stark (and startling) contrast to the fantastical mushroom landscape of the exterior. It’s clear Rodriguez had fun visualizing these books, and she gives an illuminating run-down of the evolution of the stories on her website:
“As I began to think about sequels to The Chicken Thief, I got down to work by writing out all of the themes that are close to my heart, and that I felt would take children on extraordinary journeys into unfamiliar places. I decided to begin in this way because that is where I want my stories to take children, into the unknown. I decided I wanted to play around with an amazing trip – in the air, on the moon, under the water, on land…”
The Chicken Thief, Fox and Hen Together, and Rooster’s Revenge are indeed an amazing…and beautiful trip. Mission accomplished. Béatrice Rodriguez is a graduate of the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg, and lives in France with her family.
Rooster’s Revenge by Béatrice Rodriguez, Enchanted Lion Books, to be published in September, 2011
Fox and Hen Together by Béatrice Rodriguez, Enchanted Lion Books, 2011
The Chicken Thief (previously reviewed in this blog) by Béatrice Rodriguez, Enchanted Lion Books, 2010
A special thanks to Claudia from the wonderful Enchanted Lion Books for the sneak preview of Rooster’s Revenge, and Fox and Hen Together.