Kelly Jones’ terrific Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer is described by its publisher as quirky a word that, for me, doesn’t really get across the warm-heartedness of this eccentric epistolary story. Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown has, along with her parents, just moved from LA to a seemingly animal-free farm they have inherited from her Great-Uncle Jim. The lonely Sophie, seeing a flyer for the Redwood Farm Supply company in the barn and being unable to find them on the Internet, takes her mother’s suggestion, and writes them an old-fashioned letter requesting a catalog. After all, “…if I have to live on a farm, I think it ought to be an interesting one, with chickens and ducks and some peacocks or something.” Frustrated not to receive an answer she writes again irritatedly and then, as things started getting more complicated, more urgently.
Mixed in with these letters are others. Say the wistful diary-like letters Sophie writes to her beloved deceased abuelita. “I know you’re dead, and I don’t believe in zombies, so you don’t need to write back or anything. I just wanted to write someone.” Or the lighter ones she writes to her late Great-Uncle Jim as things get…er….even…more….complicated.
For the farm isn’t animal-free for very long. One of Sophia’s Great-Uncle’s chickens shows up followed by several more and Sophie quickly learns that they have just slightly special qualities that makes them very much the unusual chickens of the book’s title. Now Sophia has to learn how to take care of them — finding some new local friends who help– as well as protect them from someone else who seems to have her eye on them and not in a good way.
Sophie’s voice is delightful. She eagerly explores the place, finds that first chicken, and is off taking care of her (and the others that follow). I loved that she read them The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and found other books about chickens, helped by the local librarian, Ms. O’Malley.This isn’t a girl who mopes about, but one who gets to work, whether cleaning up the barn, tracking down missing chickens, or writing letters. That said, in those letters to her grandmother, scattered among her descriptions of her practical rolling-up-sleeves activities, are the occasional acknowledgements of much she misses her. Refreshing, as well, are her occasional mentions of how someone or another in the small rural town perceives the bi-racial Sophia and/or her Latina mother within some very limited racial stereotypes.
In addition to the letters there are other documents: a test, a correspondence course about chickens, newspaper articles, posters for the annual poultry show, and so forth. And mixed throughout are Katie Kath’s lively illustrations.
This is definitely a favorite of mine this year — enough for me to want to look at it again in terms of Newbery. I think it is that good.