By Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
The back of UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER recommends the book to fans of Roald Dahl, which is a good call. It doesn't have his particularly wicked humor or sense of real menace, but it does have his matter-of-fact magic and a young protagonist who succeeds through a mixture of cleverness and goodness. It also has ink illustrations by Katie Kath that will remind readers of Quentin Blake.
Sophie Brown and her parents move to a farm in a small town that they inherited from Sophie's great-uncle Jim. They're new to farm life, but her dad is still searching for a new job and her mom is making do selling articles and they needed somewhere to live. Things start to change for Sophie once she finds a catalog for unusual chickens - and then starts finding unusual chickens. The story is pretty predictable, but it is told with a light hand and strong characterization.
Sophie tells her story through letters to her deceased abuelita, her uncle Jim, and Agnes (who owns the chicken farm). There are also newspaper clippings, lists, and lessons on poultry farming interspersed throughout. The drawings by Kath help tell other parts in the story in addition to illustrating some of the memorable parts of the letters. There are even a few letters from Agnes, poorly typed and brief. I like how actual facts about the work that goes into raising chickens are woven into this tale of unique chickens and the girl who is determined to protect them from a pernicious chicken thief (and anyone else who might use their strange qualities for unsavory means).
Also wonderful is how smoothly Sophie's heritage is woven into UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER. Sophie, her mother, and her abuelita are all Latina. There's Spanish phrases in her letters to her grandma, the inclusion of a migas recipe, references to the family dancing to Celia Cruz. It's a small but pertinent detail of her life. (Especially in her new town, where pretty much everyone but the mailman is white.)
UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER is an excellent choice for the younger reader who likes their books flavored with a hint of the exotic. It mostly reads like a contemporary tale of a girl going to a new place, making friends, and finding a hobby. But the subtle strangeness around the edges is ever present and pervades the entire story. It's definitely a fantastical book. A debut worth clucking about.