Sunday, November 11, 2012

Read aloud - Chicken of the Family

Harper came into the classroom squawking like a chicken.  "Bawk! Bawk!"

I asked her,
"Are you a chicken, today?"

"Bawk!  Bawk!," she answered.

"Well, I speak chicken.  Let me tell you what I did this morning," I joked. "Bawk! Bawk! Bawk!, Bawk! Bawk!, Bawk! Bawk! Bawk! Bawk! Bawk!," all the while doing hand motions for the various parts of my morning routine, such as brushing my teeth, waving goodbye, driving a car.

She couldn't keep a straight face.  She started laughing, and exclaimed,
"Ms. Ingram, you are not a chicken!"

I knew I had the perfect book for our read aloud. My next-door neighbor is Mary Amato, author of the children's picture book Chicken of the Family. When I told the children that the author of today's story lived next door to me, they stared back in surprise. I told them that she had a special room - a studio - where she wrote books..."all day long, she writes books, much like some of us work all day long, writing and drawing at our special table." The children were amazed.

This was the first time I have ever read Chicken of the Family aloud to children. I have shied away from reading this story because of its topic. It is a (somewhat autobiographical) story of older sisters teasing their youngest sister, Henrietta, insisting that the little girl was not human, but actually a chicken.

It seemed to me a book for slightly older children than the preschoolers I teach. I feared the content was too intense for my three year old preschoolers. What do they know about teasing? Isn't teasing the stuff of siblings? Isn't it a bad idea to introduce the concept of teasing to my little ones? I didn't think it was relevant to my preschool class - they seemed too young to understand. Certainly, I didn't want to cultivate teasing....

But come on, a main character who is told she is a chicken? On the same day that my student comes to school squawking like a chicken? It was time to read the book aloud. I dove in.

From the very first pages, Henrietta's sisters are teasing her. There was no avoiding this concept! The children and I discussed the difference between teasing and joking. A vibrant discussion ensued. I explained that a joke is funny to the person who says it and to the person who hears it, but that teasing is funny only to the one who says it. It makes the other person feel badly. The Big Cats really understood this. I added that sometimes you might think you are making a joke and it feels like a tease to the other person - and we definitely need to say we're sorry then. I shared,

"The other day, I joked with Sayid that I was going to turn him into a frog, and he got scared and very sad, and I realized that what I said was not a joke but a tease, and I apologized to him and I'm going to try not to make that mistake ever again.  Sayid did not think what I said was funny."

[Sayid beamed with pride when I shared this true story.]

"So, probably, maybe, everybody teases.  But they shouldn't.  Certainly, everybody makes mistakes, and we just need to say, 'Oh, I made a mistake.  I am sorry.'  And try real hard to be better."

The children had so much to share:

"Mama and Papa don't tease me." [Ferdinand]
"My Mommy says no teasing in our house." [Ellington]
"Look, the girl on the pillow, in the bed, sad." [Dillon]
"Nobody ever tease me - No!" [Ebony]
"I don't know why the sisters are laughing at her, I don't know why." [Bella]

The children with older siblings were immediately sympathetic to Henrietta, the youngest sister.

"It was scary.  [My brother] scares me." Nolan chorused.
"Those girls were teasing her and I do not like that." [Arlando]
"Yes!" declared Sarah Lydia, youngest of three, nodding her head in understanding.

According to the story, the big sisters place a raw egg on the Henrietta's mattress plus two loose feathers on the floor; at wake-up, Henrietta is convinced she is a chicken. This illustration (by Delphine Durand) of the raw egg on the bed was profound and upsetting to my class, with many sharing their concerns with me later in the day:

"There was an egg in the bed and I wonder why her two sisters put it there." [Zoe]
"I don't like the part where they put the feathers on the ground." [Charlie]
"The egg in the bed.  She didn't know the egg was there." [Emma]
"I wonder what would happen if it cracked." [Sophie]
"I was worried the egg was going to crack." [Anya]"
"I was worried a whole building and a dinosaur would crack the egg," Jack said, with a laugh.
"I thought she wanted to crack it if she sleep on it." [Lukas]
"It was a bad thing, that egg in the bed." [Jameson]
"I think the Mom and Dad would be mad to have egg in bed." [Sayid]

I asked the children if they had any thoughts they wanted me to share with my neighbor about her book. They added:

"She thought she was a chicken and she went to a farm." [Reia]
"The sister's on the farm and they say she is a chicken." [Ben]

Harper was captivated by Henrietta playing and dancing with the chickens, saying "I thought the chicken was being silly.  I think that big chicken decided to go around like a chicken dance."

Soren suggested giving the sisters a taste of their own medicine - "I thought the sisters should be chickens and stay with the Farmer so long."

"The sister was happy and she played chicken and she danced,"  Saadiq reasoned. He's only three years old, but he understood what is perhaps the main point of this sweet story - Henrietta made the best of a difficult situation.

It is the sign of a good book when everyone has something to say about it. It is an especially good book when you find yourself talking about it all day long!

Back to my feelings about this book's content/topic  - I underestimated my preschoolers! They thoroughly enjoyed this book. Its message was not too intense but, in fact, relevant and thought-provoking. I'm definitely adding it to my growing library of "must-read books" that wrestle with tougher or darker social-emotional issues. I am reminded of Bev Bos' advice to share and discuss big things with little ones:

"We need to pay attention to what's not easy to teach because it's what kids really need."

Perhaps it is especially beneficial that I read it to preschoolers, being at the age when the concept of teasing is somewhat foreign and not "the norm." Chicken of the Family proved a great book for nurturing children's empathy.


  1. Great to hear all the parts of your story, Maureen, how you had resisted & now you are re-evaluating just what does work. We learn every day with children, don't we? Thanks for the post, & for the book recommendation. I'll pass it along.

  2. Thanks so much for this! As the youngest of three, I still remember how alone I felt as a little one when I was teased -- back then most adults would tell us we should just "buck up," and learn how to take it, which always meant pretending that feelings weren't hurt. I did my fair share of teasing others as well, it took me a while to realize I wasn't the only one who felt bad when teased. So I esp. like that this has been introduced at a young age -- it's never too early to teach kids to respect feelings, both their own and other people's.

  3. Thank you for the reminder to take on the big things. Teasing is such a hard issue to explain because of its subtlety.