Wednesday, October 17

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency

by Daniel Pinkwater
1977 Aladdin anniversary edition 2007

Pinkwater, I've come to understand, is an acquired taste. Or rather, his books are a dividing line between those who get his style of absurdest humor and those who'd prefer something else. It's mis-characterized as "boy humor" but is really a question an individual's tolerance for accepting the extreme in the service of the story.

It's Thanksgiving and Arthur is sent out with $16 to buy a turkey. But the deli doesn't have their turkey and there isn't a turkey to be had anywhere in Hoboken. He reports back to his mother the situation and she sends him back out in search of a couple of chickens, or perhaps duck. It should be noted that Arthur's family doesn't particularly like turkey but it's thanksgiving and that's what good Americans eat and so a turkey must be found. Or at least a couple of chickens.

Arthur stumbles on a door where a small sign advertises something called "the chicken system" by a Professor Mazzocchi that seems promising. Stepping up to the door Arthur can hear the sounds of animals behind it and discovers that for his $16 he can obtain a 266-pound chicken named Henrietta. Walking her home on a leash Aurthur becomes fond of her and by the time he gets home there's no way they're going to eat the new family pet. Arthur's family has meatloaf for thanksgiving, and no one complains.

Arthur spends some time that holiday weekend teaching Henrietta some tricks the way he would a dog. Patiently he teaches her how to hop up a ladder and go down the slide at a local park and Arthur can't wait to show off his new pet. Sadly, Henrietta the 266-pound chicken becomes a burden at home -- especially when people see her on the street and mistake her for a white gorilla and call the police -- and Arthur is forced to return her.

The emergency in Hoboken occurs when Henrietta gets loose and is terrorizing the city. Experts are called in to try and catch the loose chicken and the longer she's out and about the more terrified the citizens become. The news is particularly good at building fear and terror where there is none (sounds familiar) and finally the solution is to try and make Henrietta feel more welcome by treating her as if she was just like everyone else. Instead of running in fear or trying to chase her down everyone views her as a matter of fact, another piece of the neighborhood, look, there's the nice chicken I was telling you about. Henrietta calms down and behaves as happy as she did before she was labeled a terror. Hoboken has a new mascot and Arthur couldn't be happier.

Rereading this classic (30 year and still in print? I call that a classic in this age of 6-month obsolescence) it's clear that it has been tweaked just a tiny bit for modern readers; when the Mayor of Hoboken announces that he's found an expert to hunt down Henrietta he notes that he has e-mailed him, something that couldn't have been done in 1977. There may have been more, equally subtle changes but for the most part it reads as most enduring books do, as both a period piece and as an awkwardly envisioned piece of contemporary children's literature. This is important to note because I had a conversation with a parent yesterday who didn't want their son reading "older books" because he isn't interested in anything that doesn't "feel contemporary."

I see. So when he's in high school and is asked to read Fitzgerald or the poetry of Whitman he isn't going to see the relevance of that? Peter Pan is fine so long as it's a modern adaptation? At what point does an "older" title cease to be relevant to a young reader?

Oh, that's right, it doesn't. Kids don't care about the age of a story, only that it's interesting, engaging, well-written and fun, whatever their definition of fun. As I said, there are those who get Pinkwater's sense of the strange and those who do not, but more often it's those who do not deciding for those who may like his books. Really, it's okay if parents and children don't agree on reading material. And if Pinkwater is their cup of tea -- and they really ought to try this particular tea -- then so be it.

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