A funny thing happened on the way to a barnyard convention. A fox steals a chicken, and as one would expect, a chase ensues, but this is no ordinary poultry pilfering. There will be no KFC party pack on the menu tonight.

The Chicken Thief is an action-packed wordless picture book involving a cross-country chase through dark forests, steep mountains, and roiling oceans. The watercolour and chalk paintings are loose in detail, but rich in colour, providing a glowing background for the expressive line drawings of the main characters: the chasers-a bear, rabbit and rooster, and the chasees-a fox and a hen. One wonders why the fox went so far afield to find his hen, but being a fox, I’m sure he had a plan. A sly plan. But not even a fox could imagine the conclusion to this unusual story.

About half the size of a typical picture book, each vignette in The Chicken Thief is a two page spread with a panoramic view of the chase; one side depicting the increasingly exhausted threesome in hot pursuit, and the other showing the fox and hen, always one step ahead of the outsmarted, would-be rescuers. The bear is the most determined of the trio, and also the most physically unfit.

He struggles to keep up with his sleeker friends, and even suffers the humiliation of being used as a raft when the pursuit takes to the water. Gotta feel sorry for the guy. One minute he’s enjoying a bowl of Nut ‘n Honey with his friends, the next he’s neck-deep in a rogue wave while the chicken and the fox enjoy a leisurely paddle in a decidedly calmer stretch of the ocean. The element of third person omniscience is part of the fun, especially toward the end as we watch the relationship between the hen and the fox morph into something unexpected.

Is this the right room for an argument?

The Chicken Thief is full of humour, most deliciously expressed in the facial expressions of the animals. Nothing tickles my funny bone more than human teeth on non-humans, and the best scene of the book is when the pursuers arrive at the door of the fox’s den in full teeth-baring grimace, bat in hand, prepared to deliver a beat-down. However, instead of coming to the rescue of the chicken, they interrupt a scene of domestic bliss.

Barring a Patty Hearst type scenario, one can only assume love has blossomed between the captive and her captor. Not that there is anything wrong with that, unless you’re the jilted rooster. Let’s face it, there was a certain inevitability to the outcome: the hen nestling just a little too comfortably in the arms of the fox, the two playing checkers by candlelight in the side of a hill, the tantalizing hint of danger, with just a whiff of scandal. And hey, who among us can resist a good fox?

When the rescuers show up at the door, it is already too late. There is nothing left to do but offer the befuddled do-gooders a steaming cup of gee I’m sorry you had to come all this way for nothing cocoa, before they are sent packing. The periwinkle shadows cast by the fire as they drink their consolation beverages is quite lovely. Not even the sulking face of the rooster can dull the joy of the fox and his sweet little mcnugget.

Béatrice Rodriguez received her degree from the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg. She is a prolific illustrator, creating children’s books as well as illustrations and cartoons for the press. I have not encountered any other books by this author/illustrator, but I am mightily impressed by The Chicken Thief. It’s unusual to find a beautifully illustrated book that is both wordless, and ever so slightly subversive. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Also, the book smells really nice, like high quality paper and ink. Take that e-readers!

The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez is published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2010  ISBN: 978-1592700929