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.

Magic Lantern Slides of  Avant-garde Soviet Children’s Books: Marshak, Lebedev, Chukovskii, Konashevich, and More…

A hand-colored slide of an illustration by Vladimir Konashevich for Kornei Chukovskii’s Tarankanische, a poem about a cockroach who wants to rule the world manufactured by Edward van Altena.

Thanks to a generous gift from Sibylle Fraser, Cotsen now has a delightfully mysterious group of magic lantern slides of illustrations from some of the most famous Soviet picture books of the 1920s.  No book is reproduced in its entirety, but there are samples from  Samuil Marshak ‘s Vladimir Lebedev’s Tsirk [Circus} and Bagazh [Baggage] illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev, Kornei Chukovskii’s Moidodyr [Wash ‘em Clean] illustrated by Yuri Annenkov, published by Raduga, and Chukovskii’s Tarankanishche [Cockroach] illustrated by Vladimir Konashevish, to mention just a few.

The title page by Yuri Annenkov for Chukovskii’s Moidodyr.

The glass slide for the first page of Lebedev’s first set of illustrations for Samuil Marshak’s Bagazh followed by the color-printed page from the book.

The glass lantern slides were produced by photographer Edward van Altena (1873-1968) at his studio on 71-79 West 45th Street in New York City, but there is no hint on the slides for whom he made them.   The photographs might have been taken as documentation of a private or institutional  collection of 1920s Soviet children’s books, but it seems much more likely they were used for lectures by someone.  The superb reproduction of the artwork would have been perfect for educational purposes, and slides were stored in the kind of case sold to lecturers.

Copy stand photography, on the other hand, is not the kind of work usually associated with van Altena, a minor celebrity in the history of photography.  Over the course of his long career, which began at age 15, were the song slides, or hand-colored magic lantern slides for sing-along entertainment between films in vaudeville theatres, a market he and his partner John Duer Scott dominated from 59 Pearl Street between 1904 and 1919.  Whether the subjects of Scott and van Altena song slides were sentimental or surreal, their production values were superb. The Princeton Graphic Arts Collections holds some wonderful examples.

After the dissolution of Scott and van Altena, the partners went their separate ways.  When van Altena moved into the premises at 71-79 45th Street and how long he did business there I was not able to discover.   The Soviet picture books he photographed were published during the 1920s, but they could have been shot in the 1930s or even into the 1940s, when glass slide technology was on its way out.  He seems to have had plenty of work, judging by the examples held in the archives of the Garden Society of America, Wintherthur, the Yale University Divinity Library, the Eastman Museum, Theodore Roosevelt papers, Brooklyn Historical Society (to mention a few), and for sale on the Internet.   The trail goes cold in the 1940s, after which he seems to have disappeared as a professional photographer.

Many thanks to Sibylle Fraser, for this most unusual and intriguing gift to the collection.  Perhaps it will inspire a researcher to try and learn more about who was preaching the gospel of the Soviet avant-garde’s great creators of picture books for children.

Sources consulted included Terry  Bolton, “Outstanding Colorists of American Magic Lantern Slides, Magic Lantern Gazette, 26:1 (Spring 2014), 3-23, Elizabeth Carlson, “Five Cent Fantasies: Photographic Experimentation in Illustrated Song Slides,” History of Photography, 41:2 (May 2017), 188-203, and Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern, co-edited by David Robinson, Stephen Herbert, and Richard Crangle (London: Magic Lantern Society, 2001).