The Sad Tale of Henny Penny: “What’s Fair is Fowl, What’s Fowl is Fare”

Stories don’t get much sillier than Henny Penny.  The plot is set in motion when a chicken gets beaned on the head by an acorn.  The nitwit jumps to the conclusion that the world is ending and the king must be told.   On her way, she meets a series of birds, each of whom asks permission to accompany her on the mission.  That question—and its response–is always posed to the group, not its leader Henny Penny, which requires the repetition of all the characters’ silly rhyming names in the order in which they joined.  Galloping through the list in the correct order without mistakes takes concentration and a straight face.  The number of feathered delegates to the king would have increased until the castle gate was in sight, had not a fox helpfully offered to show them the short cut via his den.

The pictures of the birds in Paul Galdone’s classic picture book version plays it straight, putting all the pressure on the reader to keep things moving along to the inevitable conclusion. To Leonard B. Lubin, an artist who liked to imagine animals in elaborate historical costumes,  the cast of barnyard fowl posed an irresistible challenge. Where Beatrix Potter hesitated to dress up birds in her illustrations, he plunged in and designed exquisite eighteenth-century robes with appropriate headgear for a chicken, rooster, duck, goose, and turkey.  The only concession made to reality was to give them human feet that would look daintier than webbed ploppers in high-heeled slippers and pointed buckled shoes.When our flock of beribboned, furbelowed, and flounced birdbrains come barreling down the road, who should they meet but the fox, gentlemanly and helpful as can be, dressed for a day’s shooting in the countryside.  How they were picked off and plucked for the platter is left entirely to the reader’s imagination, but not a whisper of hope is offered that any escaped the fate of being eaten in one greasy sitting.

Jane Wattenberg’s retelling lovingly blows up the old story with wild photocompositions full of sly verbal jokes and a text stuffed with jaunty puns, vivid verbs, cool apostrophes, and emotive type setting. It’s unapologetically and deliciously over the top from the copy on the front flap “Come flock along with Henny Penny and her feathered friends flap around the world in search of…  King Kong?  King Tut?  Or is it Elvis…  But when they meet up with that mean ball of fur Foxy-Loxy, their plans suddenly go a-fowl” to the back cover illustration of Henny Penny  captioned “Was it REALLY all my fault?”

Wattenberg’s poultry wear nothing but their feathers and combs, but they talk like no other birds in picture books—“Shake, rattle, and roll!  The sky is falling!  It’s coming on down! Henny-Penny saw it and heard it and it smacked her on her fine red comb. We’re full tilt to tell the king.”

In a picture narrative where the pace never lets up, it is seems just right that the ending doesn’t mince words or dial back the jokes about the mayhem  in Foxy Loxy’s cave.

Leaping gizzards!  What a skanky prank!  For with a Gobble-Gobble-Gobble! That sly Foxy-Loxy wolfed down poor Turkey-Lurkey.  With a Squonk-Hiss-s-s-s-Honk! That fleazy Foxy-Loxy gobbled up Goosey-Loosey and Gander-Lander.  With a Quack@  Don’t Look Back! That cunning cad Foxy-Loxy wolfed down Ducky-Lucky and Drake-Cake.  With a Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!  What I Do to You?  That greedy grunge of a Foxy-Loxy gobbled up poor Cocky-Locky.

The darkness is softened by the way the fox’s treachery is underscored with each gulp and allowing Henny Penny, the unwitting perpetrator of the carnage, to escape.  The last one waiting outside the killing room, she figures out what is going on and runs away as fast as her little three-toed feet can carry her, squawking that she’s got to get home and lay the daily egg.There’s nothing like justice in the tale of Henny Penny and her unfortunate friends, but it isn’t the way of the world to look out for the gullible, whether the sky is falling or not…  Perhaps that’s why the story continues to be retold and we cry with laughter with every one.

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