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.

Making Sculpture with Matches: A Cure for the Summertime Blues

Dog days are here.  It’s so hot and humid that all kinds of mushrooms are popping up in the grass, but that’s no reason for being bored and out of sorts waiting for school to start!   There are zillions of great crafty ideas in the collection of activity books in the Cotsen Children’s Library.

paulinchenSome people can’t resist playing with matches, like Heinrich Hoffmann’s Paulinchen, shown at the left.  If she had lived to adulthood, perhaps she would have discovered the creative potential of the match as a building material.  Constructing things with matches is a much safer way to have fun with them, although it is possible to dream up projects that require considerable outlays of time and money, plus studio space.   All the replicas of famous buildings below were made entirely of matches by retired British carpenter Brian Wherry.

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Twentieth-century activity books for children feature  many doable projects creating little sculptures from matches and found objects. Three of my favorites are beautifully illustrated books from Denmark and the Soviet Union published during the early 1930s.  This Soviet pamphlet by Eleonora Kondiain offers wordless pictures for making things out of acorns and matchsticks.  About all that is needed is a table top and a jackknife.

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Getting started. Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki [Acorns and Matches] Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 3 (cotsen 18308)

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Acorn and matchstick piggies from Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki, p. 5. Cotsen also has Kondiain’s little book with instructions for making a doll from straw and for whittling a stag from a twig.

Matches can be stuck in potatoes for the same purpose too, although it raises the question whether perfectly good food should be used this way…  Kuznetsov’s  illustrations of the match-potato sculptures make it look as if anything done to the potato is completely reversible before peeling, cutting up, and popping into a pot of boiling water.  Would anyone care if the vegetables had been part of a cat or equestrian figure a little while before dinner was put on the table?

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A sculpture of potatoes, matches, string, etc. I. P. Meksin, Kartoshka [Potato] illustrated by K. V. Kuznetsov. Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 7 (Cotsen 21419). Opinion in the office was divided as to whether the animal being ridden is a bull, a reindeer or a donkey. Or none of the above…

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This is clearly a cat. Meksin, Kartoshka (1930), p. 4.

The really ambitious crafter can build backdrops so the figures can be arranged in  tableaux.   For inspiration, look at the scenes  E. Fetnam created and Kay W. Jensen captured on film in Nodder and Propper [Nuts and Corks].  The cover design  makes delightful use of matches and mixed nuts…

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A kangaroo family conversing in E. Fetnam’s Nodder og Propper. Copenhagen: Wilhelm Hansen, c.1933, p. 29 (Cotsen 95045).

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Now can you make this friendly ladybug without instructions?

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To see more activity books in the collection, check out Cotsen’s virtual exhibition about the Pere Castor books