At Fellows Elementary School in the early ‘90s, “chicken butt” jokes were the height of hilarity. So, I suppose it was out of nostalgia that I first picked up a copy of Erica S. Perl’s boldly titled children’s book, “Chicken Butt.” But Perl’s rollicking version of the question-and-answer standoff, in this case between a son and his reluctant father, had me laughing like an 8 year old in no time.
I find it hard to imagine that there’s a person on the face of the English-speaking earth who hasn’t participated in some version of this classic schoolyard exchange, either uttering it themselves or being duped into it by an overly exuberant grade-schooler. But for cheap laughs, I’ll share the rendition I remember:
In your underwear!
Perl is unapologetic about her sophomoric humor. In fact, it’s a large part of what led her to a career in writing after a stint as a public defender.
“You can’t be all that funny as a lawyer,” she said in an interview for her alma mater, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. “I mean, you can, but it’s not always such a great idea.”
Perl’s chicken butt jokes strike just the right chord with her 4- to 8-year-old audience. Simply say the word “butt” and you’ll have every kindergartner within a square mile in hysterics.
Although Perl reports she’s never had a complaint, I suspect not all parents will find this a redeeming quality in a children’s book. For the skeptics, I must expound of the book’s exceptional educational values. As a former journalist, I couldn’t have been more proud when my not-yet 2 year old mastered her five W’s and an H (who, what, where, when, why and how) in response to the book’s Q-and-A format. And Perl also uses the book as a tool to teach rhyme and tempo.
“I always pause between the page turns and ask kids to guess the rhymes,” she tells Maw Books Blog. “I’ve gotten some great ones, like ‘chicken stew!’ and ‘chicken hair.’”
The opportunities the book offers for a child to participate in its narration are among the book’s best qualities. This spread has proven particularly popular at our house when read with out-of-control goofiness and a little couch jumping.
But my personal favorite is the illustration that immediately follows this outburst:
It doesn’t take a word of text for young readers to understand that the boy and his fowl sidekick are in BIG trouble.
Where Perl’s verse is spare, relying nearly entirely on the classic lines of the joke, Henry Cole’s frenetic artwork fleshes out the story in vibrant acrylics and colored pencil. Early illustrations on the title and dedication pages reveal how the joke-telling mayhem begins. It appears the chicken instigated the bedlam, sharing his wisecrack with the impressionable young boy after following him home from the newsstand.
Paired with a different but equally talented illustrator, Julia Denos, I nearly missed the fact that Perl had authored another of my favorite finds. “Dotty,” like “Chicken Butt,” is a shining example of Perl’s talent for capturing common childhood experiences and distilling them in perfect storybook form.
In this case, Perl gives treatment to imaginary friends, a sentimental subject for both the author and myself. As a first-grader, I had a zoo of imaginary animals, each with its own imaginary leash, all of whom I dragged along to the pool and on long car trips. In Perl’s case, it was a set of twins named Sahti and Dahti who kept her 4-year-old self company and, later, at age 8, an imaginary pet sheep.
“By then I was pretty sure that I’d get teased if anyone found out about my imaginary sheep, so I didn’t tell anyone,” she told the blog “Mishaps and Adventures,” which offers an amazing behind the scenes look at Dotty’s artistic creation.
Perl rolled her experiences into “Dotty,” an endearing story about a girl named Ida whose spotted and horned friend Dotty (think pink rhino) tags along on her first day of school. As it turns out, Ida isn’t the only one with an imaginary pet. She’s introduced to the fanciful creatures of her classmates, each one embodying some of the social struggles of its owner.
“Dotty occasionally poked people with her horns when she got restless. Pete and Repeat occasionally refused to share. Spike occasionally growled when she missed her nap. And Keekoo occasionally had to be told to let someone else have a turn talking.”
As the seasons pass, however, Ida’s friends begin to leave behind or altogether forget their imaginary friends. Soon, Ida is the only student still toting a leash to school and some of her peers take the opportunity to ridicule her. But, as Ida tells it, Dotty comes to her defense.
Both Ida and her classmate are reprimanded by their teacher, but Ms. Raymond proves to be sympathetic to Ida’s plight. It’s revealed that she, too, has an imaginary friend she’s never forgotten.
In fact, on second reading, you’ll find that Gert’s been hiding in the background all along.
Perl says she hoped the book’s message would help children understand that imagination and imaginary friends aren’t things they have to outgrow.
“I also see it as a book about the pressures kids sometimes feel to give up ‘babyish’ things, especially when they start school,” she told The Happy Nappy Bookseller. “I firmly believe that growing up doesn’t have to mean letting go of all the things that comforted you when you were little. In fact, I still have my old dog-earred teddy in my office.”
Ida’s exchange with Katya certainly brings to mind conversations that arose about Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the like in the later years of elementary school. I clung to my belief in these magical people even when others mocked me.
Perl’s treatment of this topic is elegantly sensitive and flawless. Ida’s experiences – both good and bad – mirror the excitements and challenges my newly-anointed preschooler is encountering this fall.
My daughters’ affection for both “Dotty” and “Chicken Butt” make Perl a frequent request around our house. We didn’t find “Chicken Butt’s” sequel, “Chicken Butt’s Back!.” quite as hilarious as its predecessor but we’re eagerly awaiting Perl’s next picture book project.