Review of the Day: The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy, ill. Eugene Yelchin
Allegorical tales are not supposed to make you giggle. They’re steeped in seriousness. Rooted in meaning. Awash in heartfelt feelings that are meant to make you think deeply about the state of the world today. When such tales are rendered as children’s picture books they often retain that same earnest quality. Now I’ve always been squarely located in the camp that believes that any message is vastly improved when it puts a little humor in the mix for spice. The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet just backs up that theory tenfold. Here we have a book that not only celebrates those people that speak up when everyone else cowers around, but also makes it very clear that while there is a messiness and a noise to everyday society, the alternative can sometimes prove much much worse.
In the village of La Paz things are noisy. Too noisy. The citizens are happy but the situation is clearly untenable. So, out goes the old mayor and in comes the new. Don Pepe promises peace and quiet and at first his rules are reasonable. Yet next thing you know no singing is allowed anywhere and even the teakettles are afraid to whistle. Years pass and one day a rooster and his family come into the village and roost in a mango tree. A tree that, quite unfortunately, is located below Don Pepe’s window. Incensed, the mayor takes away the rooster’s tree. Then his family. Then his food. Then all light. But no matter what the man does, that noisy rooster keeps on singing. And when one person is unafraid to sing, it can sometimes inspire more people to do more singing, loud and proud and strong.
Folktales, as well you know, aren’t published as regularly as they used to be. And The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! isn’t exactly a folktale yet it shares many the same qualities as some of the classic folktales you’ve encountered in the past. Deedy expertly wields repetition and rhythm, as well as a puffed up villain and a headstrong hero, giving the book a distinctly folktale-ish feel. The end result is a fantastic storytime book. Like a lot of librarians, I’m always on the lookout for books that will read aloud well to large groups. This book definitely would work better with school aged children in the earlier of grades (K-2), so don’t necessarily try it on the 3-year-olds. That said, I did read it to my own resident munchkin and though he was somewhat baffled by the fact that the rooster went “Kee-kee-ree-KEE!” rather than “cock-a-doodle doo” he was willing to go along with it thanks to the writing. The words fall trippingly off the tongue and while I was surprised not to find more Spanish words in the text, I had a blast reading it out loud. You will too. It’s one of those books that just sounds good on the first try.
In a talk Ms. Deedy gave about this book at the ALA Midwinter Conference in Atlanta, she mentioned that early in the writing process she meant for it to show precisely what tormentors do to break their prisoners. Beat for beat, the rooster’s experiences match that process. You take away the things they love. Then you take away the people they love. Then you take away their food. Then you plunge them into isolation. Ms. Deedy skipped the part where you torture them (we’re talking about a picture book for the 4-7-year-old set, after all) but the bones of the project are still there. They may be lightened by humor and Mr. Yelchin’s funny pictures but when the rooster gives his speech about why he sings, it resonates far beyond the outlines of a simple fable. “But a song is louder than one noisy little rooster and stronger than one bully of a mayor . . . And it will never die – so long as there is someone to sing it.” If the literary organization PEN America, which fights for free expression, were to custom order a picture book, they could do no better than this.
And now, an apology. An apology that I feel I must render to Eugene Yelchin himself. Ahem.
Dear Mr. Yelchin,
I apologize profusely for not properly appreciating your artistic style until now. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that when you encounter a particular style that doesn’t do it for you aesthetically, you have to acknowledge that fact right from the start and recuse yourself from public commentary. I’d seen your art before, naturally. Breaking Stalin’s Nose was my first encounter, followed by books like Elephant in the Dark. And while those were all lovely enough to look at, I just wasn’t on board yet. It took Rooster here to allow me to see precisely how perfect your style was for this story.
Yes, I commend the brave editorial soul at Scholastic that had the wherewithal to pair Deedy’s story with Yelchin’s style. Rendered in oil pastel, colored pencil, gouache, and acrylic, Yelchin gives himself over to a crazy cacophony of color when he draws the noisy world of the little village. His Don Pepe is perfect, a slickster in a pinstripe suit, thin little mustache, and sickly pallor. To my mind, the image of the teakettle holding its breath while the sneaky little eyes of Don Pepe peep over the windowsill is nothing less than perfection incarnate. As for his rooster, that joyful bird isn’t just the standard red and orange. His coat of many colors involves blue, green, pink, scarlet, and so much more. When he stands in pure defiance of Don Pepe’s will, look at the placement of his feet. As any dancer or master of martial arts would tell you, that is the stance of someone who is standing strong and is not going to be knocked down (literally or figuratively). As Don Pepe descends into desperation and madness (brilliantly captured by Yelchin) the rooster changes not a jot. He may be the one being put through trials and tribulations, but ultimately he isn’t the one running for the door.
Fun Fact: The original working title of this book was “The Noisy Little Rooster”. This was ultimately changed to “The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!” which I feel is an important change. Little kids are “noisy” and you get the sense that they can’t control those sounds. The rooster in this book is loud because that is his choice. He repeatedly makes the conscious decision to sing his song again and again in defiance of what he calls a, “silly law”. It seems to me the time has never been better for this rooster to sing his song. Our kids could stand to learn a thing or two about facing down bullies in power. It may be an allegory, but this book’s chock full of fun and frolic, humor and laughter, and just the lightest undercurrent of darker tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Everything you’ll need for your social activism storytime.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- It Could Always Be Worse by Margot Zemach
- Brundibar by Tony Kushner, ill. Maurice Sendak
- Don’t Cross the Line! by Isabel Minhos Martins, illustrated by Bernardo Carvalho
Funny Girl Connection:
I am happy to report that Ms. Deedy is a Funny Girl contributor. Her story about the flaming bathtub will be worth the price of the book alone, I assure you.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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