Dana Rudolph

From Penguins to Chicken Butts: Diversity and Subversion in Children's Books

Filed By Dana Rudolph | May 24, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: children's literature, erica perl, henry cole

"Gcb front cover.jpguess what?"

"Chicken Butt!"

The classic schoolyard gag has found new life in Chicken Butt!, a picture book by critically acclaimed children's author Erica Perl. There is nothing LGBT-specific about the story, but Perl's illustrator is Henry Cole, the prolific artist who also did the drawings for Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson's And Tango Makes Three and Harvey Fierstein's The Sissy Duckling, both beloved of LGBT parents and their children. Cole and Perl spoke with me recently about diversity and subversion in kids' books, the general state of children's literature, and of course, chickens.

The idea for the book sprang from Perl's first work, Chicken Bedtime Is Really Early. While promoting that book, Perl was telling lots of chicken jokes, and realized the "butt" one might make a good story in itself. Her publisher, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., helped pair her and Cole, whom she says did "amazing" things to bring the all-dialogue story to life.

Cole, whose interest in birds started when he was growing up on a farm in Virginia, was a natural for the job. He admits to "a childhood fascination with chickens" and observes, "Somehow chicken books come across my drawing table frequently."

The cartoon-like but expressive characters of Chicken Butt! are closer to those of The Sissy Duckling than the more realistic, soft watercolor penguins of Tango. Cole explains, "Drawing a chicken wearing a pair of tighty-whities is stretching the imagination a little bit, and just crazy fun. The illustrations for Tango were difficult because most of the story takes place in a very enclosed space, kind of dark--not many colors or things going on in the penguin house. Getting a variety of perspectives and trying to make each page interesting was difficult. That wasn't true for Chicken Butt! where I could use different bold colors and make this maniacal chicken."

The chicken may get the laughs, but the heart of the story is the relationship between the boy and his father, who ends up exhausted on the couch after his son's machinations. Perl says the father's defeat helps make the book work for both kids and grownups. "The kid gets the satisfaction of feeling they've outsmarted the grownup a little bit," she explains, "but the grownup has the sensation of reading a book that speaks to their experience, that oftentimes you'll set up a rule and kids will figure out a way around it."

A book about chicken butts and an overwhelmed father may be somewhat subversive, but Perl says she prefers to write stories that don't wrap everything up with a pat ending. She observes, however, that many publishers in these days of slim margins are less willing to take chances on edgier works, often going with books that have licensed character tie-ins and other safe subjects.

Cole, who taught elementary school for 16 years, adds that a little edginess may in fact help encourage children's interest in reading. "I think if you can grab that little boy in the back of a classroom who's cutting up and not paying attention, then you've got everybody," he explains. "If you're going to read books aloud to a class, and one of them is 'Teddy Bears Playing in the Lilac Bushes,' and the other one is Chicken Butt!, Chicken Butt! is going to make people sit up and listen and pay attention."

Despite the market-driven focus of children's publishing, Perl does sense that some publishers are becoming more willing to tackle sensitive issues like race, family structure, or caring for the environment. "Whether that's because it's suddenly politically correct or because it's the right thing to do, it's nice," she says. "Publishers are less likely to see things as a one-issue book, and more like a book a lot of people could get behind."

Her second book, Ninety-Three in My Family, addresses just such an issue of family diversity. It's not an LGBT book--the protagonist has a mom and a dad. He considers his dozens of pets part of his family as well, however, and there's a strong message that your family is whatever you define it to be.

Perl realizes not everyone thinks as openly she does, however, and that close-minded thinking is what has landed Tango on the American Library Association's list of most-challenged books for the past two years. She reflects, "I just don't understand how anyone could be opposed to it. It seems to me that a book about happy families should be a book that every kid should have."

Cole adds that the challenges represent a small percentage of readers. "It's always some lone person who challenges the book and creates a ripple," he notes. "I just think what a sad state of affairs when a story that actually happened [Tango] is being challenged."

Perl says half-jokingly, however, that she hopes the word "butt" will land Chicken Butt! on the most-challenged list, since such challenges often have an effect opposite to their intent, drawing attention to the book and causing people to buy it out of curiosity.

Chicken Butt!, which features only a boy, his father, and one zany chicken, works well for gay and/or single dads, but the poultry humor seems to transcend barriers and hit a universal funny spot for elementary school kids from any type of family. The book may not have the same warm, fuzzy (feathery?) messages about family and self as Tango or The Sissy Duckling, but for a fast-paced, fun read-aloud that captures an all-too-true slice of family life . . . guess what?

(Originally published March 19, 2009, in Bay Windows.)

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Every time Paige says, "Guess what?!" I reply, "Chicken butt!" LMAO