Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath.
Borzoi, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, New York, 2015.
Speculative/realistic fiction epistolary novel, 216 pages.
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 5.0 points)
Sophie Brown’s family has moved from LA to Gravenstein, California. They’ve traded their apartment for a house and farm filled with all the many things her great-uncle Jim had saved. A farm doesn’t feel right without any animals, but they’ll have to be cheap because money is tight since Dad lost his job and they started relying on Mom’s income as a freelance writer. Then a chicken turns up… a very special chicken.
Amazon kept recommending this book to me since I started buying diverse books. Nothing in the description suggests a PoC is in this book and in the tiny cover preview, Sophie didn’t look dark-skinned. Eventually I ordered a copy – but mistakenly got a hardcover instead of the paperback. Once it arrived I was glad for the mistake, because as soon as he saw this book, our reluctant reader started insisting that I read it to him that night. I don’t turn down his book requests, and they are loving it so far.
This book was a wonderful surprise. The format is unusual (just like those chickens). There also is a paranormal/science fiction aspect that would be a major spoiler to discuss.
It’s an epistolary novel, but Sophie mostly writes to the deceased, so there’s more of a diary style, with some differences based on addressee. Other items are also present, such as flyers, a correspondence course, and informative pages about different breeds of chickens. I learned a surprising amount of real facts about chickens; there are even math problems to help you calculate how much space or feed your chickens need.
The pictures are crucial to the story. Starting at the beginning of the story, there is a period of illustration followed by the letter or letters. At times the illustration is full-page, while at other points there is a series of several smaller illustrations. These vignettes help fill in Sophie’s life and further the plot.
Sophie is biracial but doesn’t explicitly identify with a particular racial group in the book. Her mom’s family speaks Spanish and some members are identified as Mexican. Spanish is thoughtfully woven into the novel, mainly in Sophie’s letters to her deceased grandmother. However, the English-speaking reader can easily understand the book without knowing what the very occasional word means.
She describes herself as a brown person and connects with the only other brown person there. I also loved that at a few points another character is identified as white, which white authors rarely do!
Sophie talks frankly about everything from her family’s finances to her thoughts on making friends in a new place where she stands out like a sore thumb. But what got me excited was that she speaks openly about microaggressions. This happens not just once but throughout the novel. She even experiences them from characters that are allies, like librarian Ms. O’Malley in the header quote.
This story is also very moral. Sophie is a thoughtful and responsible child and her parents respond by gradually giving her more freedom and privileges. The majority of characters respect Sophie’s ownership and inheritance, which makes this book even more powerful, because Sophie STILL experiences constant microaggressions in a welcoming and morally decent community.
A lovely moment toward the end of the book where we learn that one of the adult characters has a partner was a great example of a subtle way that diversity and inclusion can be worked into a novel.
The suspense in this book builds nicely. While the first part is slow as she adjusts, events gradually build until the “just one more letter, please” finale. Plan the start of this when you have a little extra time, so you can read up to the chicken thief and then stop – they’ll beg for more.
Spoiler: Though it was in character for responsible Sophie to take great care not to let anyone eat an egg before three days, I was still hoping to find out what happens if you do eat one… /End Spoiler
Definitely recommended! This seems to be aimed at the middle grades, but there was nothing in there that couldn’t be read, or listened to, by a much younger child.