I first read about The Chicken Thief at the magnificent blog dedicated to the appreciation of picture book illustration and illustrators, 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast then again at Betsy Bird's blog and then again at many others as love for Béatrice Rodriguez's creation spread among kid's book bloggers. All reviews gushed about the wonderousness of this book and, although I am a bit late to this party, I am going to gush about this wordless picture book, too. But, before I do I need to tell you about Enchanted Lion Books, the wonderful publishers who bring us this book from France. Enchanted Lion is dedicated to books that have "well-told stories, and illustrations that open up the visual world and deepen a child's sense of story" and The Chicken Thief by Béatrice Rodriguez is the perfectly chosen first in a new series from the publisher called Stories Without Words.
As reviewers have noted, Rodriguez has composed a story that could have come from any time period. In fact, I am reminded of a book from my own childhood, Ludwig Bemelman's 1960 title, Welcome Home, in which a fox, pursued by the hounds and the hunters, cleverly makes his way back to his den and his waiting wife and children. The Chicken Thief is a chase/hunt story as well and, as Betsy Bird notes, perfectly suited to the small, rectangular size of the book itself, which makes for perfectly panoramic two page spreads. Rodriguez's illustration style has, as Jules at 7 Imp describes it, a "gestural quality, a breezy confidence that works particularly well with energetic stories." Upon first glance, The Chicken Thief may seem simplistic in artistic style, but Rodriguez captures emotions and expressions with mere pen strokes. The economy of her style makes the story all the more exciting. Rodriguez is a genius storyteller, especially when you read all three of her books in succession. Her characters are so totally endearing, their island/forest world so enchanting that it is impossible to believe you have just read three books without words.
And the story! What a great story! In fact, the ending is so wonderful that I am going to keep my comments brief and as cryptic as possible. A family of assorted (somewhat odd) animals have their breakfast disturbed when a rogue fox nabs their hen. The Bear, the Rabbit and the Rooster chase after their friend with a fierce determination.
The chase that ensues and the terrain covered is very entertaining and, as with all wordless books, there are so many details to take in and successive readings reveal new details and quirks.
The sea journey ends and a surprise, well, a shock really, awaits the Bear, Rabbit and especially the Rooster. One review called The Chicken Thief a tale of "romantic intrigue." This description perfectly sets up the next story in this saga, Rooster's Revenge. SPOILER ALERT: Some events of the next two books could reveal the surprise ending of The Chicken Thief. Read ahead (and look at the illustrations) at your own discretion!
In Rooster's Revenge, the long journey back home for Bear, Rabbit and the scorned Rooster is not uneventful. A storm at sea washes the friends onto seashore rocks that turn out to be turtles.
Carried into a cave on the backs of these turtles, the exhausted friends fall asleep.
Rooster tears off through the sea cave, determined to keep his find to himself.
The landscape of Rooster's Revenge is spectacular and reminds me a bit of the magical imagination of Kazu Kibuishi and his graphic novel Copper. Or maybe it's just the mushroom forest.
Again, Rodriguez offers up a surprise ending. Rooster's Revenge sees the trio back to their forest home, a surprise guest in tow.
Fox and Hen Together finds the endearing couple from The Chicken Thief in nesting mode - sort of.
The two have taken on a pet crab, who is hilarious and every bit as expressive as the other characters. When the fridge turns up empty, Hen kisses her egg goodbye, leaving it in the (hopefully trustworthy) hands of her mate, Fox, as she and Crab head out to catch dinner.
However, the fishing expedition does not go quite as planned as one catch leads to another and another.
Finally, Hen and Crab return home where she finds her precious egg nothing but a shell on the dinner table and the culprit rocking contentedly in front of the fire. Rather than a full stomach, Fox is filled with love for their little henfox baby, one of the best creations since ND Wilson's Raggant, a baby rhino with wings!