Monday, October 9

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

illustrated by Jon Agee, Tedd Arnold, Harry Bliss, David Catrow, Marla Frazee, Mary Grandpre', Lynn Munsinger, Jerry Pinkney, Vladimir Radunsky, Chris Raschka, Judy Schachner, David Shannon, Chris Sheban, Mo Willems
Dial Press 2006

What happens when you take the quintessential riddle, the ur-joke of playgrounds nationwide, and give it to 14 illustrators to answer? This light-hearted assembly grants each illustrator a double-page spread to stretch out and let the answers flow in primarily visual punchlines. Some go for the silly, some the surreal, and others are just out for an afternoon picnic (literally).

As an adult reading this I found myself trying to determine whether each "answer" felt satisfying to me; I wanted to be shown all the possibilities that the question afforded. To that end I was satisfied that Mo Williams took the opportunity to give us a police interrogation where the poor chicken in the hot seat honestly doesn't have the answer. The he's being "grilled" is a great pun, with the additional image of an officer preparing coals for a barbecue as an inducement to underscore the joke-within-the-joke. Chris Raschka doubles up the riddle by having the Sphinx ask the chicken in reply "You tell me".

On the flip side, Jerry Pinkney's country picnic seems a bit too genteel and Mary Grandpre's Chagall-like dream collage sends out an ethereal fog horn that asks "What was the question again?" Not that either of the illustrations is anything less than the artists at their best, in fact they both are downright beautiful. But neither satisfactorily answers the title questions for me.

Somewhere on the fringes you have Jon Agee's thick outlined chicken oblivious to the stampede of people and vehicle attempting to outrun dinosaurs, while Harry Bliss' chicken at least knows enough to run from the zombie chickens.

Zombie chickens?

That's when I began to wonder how this book would be taken at a younger level. A young picture book reader is likely to enjoy the more literal responses -- like the two that are concerned with following traffic lights -- but might need to have the concepts of zombies and a police interrogation explained to them. Older readers who might enjoy the more sophisticated responses mentioned above might not give the picture book a second glance. And when it comes to the image of a chicken at the counter in a diner ready to tuck into a mammoth cheeseburger, conjuring up the idea of barnyard cannibalism, I just throw up my hands.

I like the book the same way I enjoy a wafer thing after dinner chocolate mint; It wasn't expected, it was a fun little surprise, and ultimately nothing more than a trifle.

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