Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. Illustrated by Katie Kath. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Sophie is not really happy about her family’s move from LA to rural California, as she writes mostly in letters to her dead and much-missed Abuelita. It’s a shock moving from having lots of friends within walking distance, to having very few kids at all, and none of them with brown skin like hers. But deceased Uncle Jim, whose farm they have inherited, seems not to have gotten rid of anything. That’s a house, attic, barn and yard full of junk for a girl to explore. When chickens start appearing one by one, starting with the always-angry Henrietta, things get even more interesting. Sophie starts taking a correspondence course on how to take care of unusual chickens – and they are unusual. Sophie’s letters to the Unusual Chicken Farm come back as misspelled, typed letters. Sophie starts making friends, despite her initial discomfort, with the friendly African-American mail carrier who reminds her of her teacher back in LA, and with a white boy her age who at least lives within biking distance. But despite the friendliness of most of the people, there’s at least one person who doesn’t want Sophie to keep the chickens. Will Sophie be able to prove that the chickens are really hers???
You guys, this was so much fun! There were so many things I loved about this book. It certainly had the potential to be depressing, starting off with the dead grandma the way it does, but Sophie knows that Abuelita would want her to go on with her life and be happy, and so she does, with a book that is exciting and funny. I loved also that the closings of her letters are mostly in untranslated Spanish, without being written down for an Anglo audience. (I had to look up some of them where my year of high school Spanish failed me – but knowing how to look things up is a fine thing for kids to learn, too.) I loved the chickens, and her friends. I appreciated that even in rural California that feels so very white to Sophie, it’s still not all-white – besides the mail carrier, there’s an African-American business woman and a Spanish-speaking Filipina reporter. I appreciated the feel of a small town where a chicken show is the biggest social event going. But most of all, I loved Sophie, throwing herself so cheerfully and wholeheartedly into her new life. This is one where the supernatural touch is light enough that it won’t throw off people who have trouble figure out complicated fantasy cultures or magic systems, funny and heart-warming enough to appeal to a broad range of tastes and ages.
Pair this with The Secret Chicken Society for more silly chicken fun, or look at Stephanie’s post called A Tuesday Ten: Hispanic/Latino Speculative Fiction for Kids over at Views from the Tesseract for more stories with Hispanic heroes.