Mr. Watson's Chickens by Jarrett Dapier, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi

Mr. Watson's Chickens 
written by Jarrett Dapier
illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi
Review Copy from Chronicle Books

LOVE! LOVE! LOVE! There are so many things to love about Mr. Watson's Chickens, possibly even more than the 456 chickens that live in queer couple Mr. Watson and Mr. Nelson's "big, honking house with a teeny-tiny yard in a big, honking city." Jarrett Dapier, drummer, librarian and author of Jazz for Lunch, tells the story of the hazards of an urban farm with a melodic, rhythmic beat. Andrea Tsurumi's (scroll down for more of her work) perfectly paired, intricate illustrations are filled with energy, action, emotion and feathers

While Mr. Watson, who reads as white, loves his three chickens as much as they love him, Mr. Nelson, who is Japanese-American (note the daruma on his desk, a portrait of a woman and man in traditional Japanese clothing hanging on the living room wall and that the men remove their shoes indoors) seems skeptical, if tolerant - at first. Soon enough, three becomes 456, with Mr. Watson gleefully accommodating the horde of chickens as they take over the house. A superb two-page cutaway shows the chickens in all rooms and on all floors doing everything from playing Twister and tie-dying t-shirts in the bathtub to having a pillow fight and performing the magic trick of cutting a chicken in half. And, as if wall-to-wall chickens were not enough, there is Aunt Agnes, the chicken who "sings" ALL THE TIME! Her refrain, "Shooby-doo, wonky-pow, bawka-bawka, in da chow-chow," is sure to have readers and listeners singing along long after the last page of Mr. Watson's Chickens has been turned. 

When Mr. Nelson can't take it anymore, he tells Mr. Watson that he is moving to the chicken coop - alone! - if he doesn't get rid of the chickens. Mr. Watson loves his chickens, "but he loved Mr. Nelson more. Without Mr. Nelson, his heart would be a broken egg." Thinking he can re-home his chickens at the county fair, Mr. Watson finds both disaster and solution, with a resolution that perfectly suits the tone of the story. Mr. Watson and Mr. Nelson return to a home where there are "no chickens in their soup," and "no chickens in their pajamas." As they settle into bed, their "house now an empty nest," they find a surprise hatching under their pillows.

Tsurumi excels at illustrating scenes of chicken chaos. If you read her debut picture book Accident!, then you know she has a gift for a detailed, character filled illustrations with action in every corner, making Mr. Watson's Chickens a book that will be read repeatedly and pored over almost as closely as a Where's Waldo book. Details of domestic life, from the pair of electric toothbrushes on the bathroom sink and the mortar and pestle in the kitchen (along with the cookbook "Salt, Fat, Eggs, Eggs," a play on one of my go-to cookbooks, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by the effervescent Samin Nosrat), are tucked in among the pandemonium of the chickens and their activities. And, in a magnificent nod to the queer children's book creators, Tsurumi honors Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Trina Schart Hyman, Louise Fitzhugh and the great Ursula Nordstrom (a children's book editor who worked with many queer authors and illustrators from the 1940s to the 1970s and wrote one children's book of her own, The Secret Language) with symbolic pictures (brilliantly, Fitzhugh and her most famous creation are represented with a diagram of something they both loved - a tomato sandwich) hanging on the wall next to Mr. Nelson's desk. In the couple's living room, Tsurumi includes a portrait of Tove Jansson hanging on the ancestor wall above a dancing chicken wearing a wolf suit, à la Maurice Sendak's Max. The horde of chickens in the living room also includes a dancing chicken in a striped scarf, à la Edward Gorey's Doubthful Guest, and a chicken in a kerchief, a nod to Tomie de Paoloa's Strega Nona. A two-page spread at the fair includes statues of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.

Reading Mr. Watson's Chickens and noticing a couple of the queer children's book creators and/or their creations in the illustrations, I reached out to Tsurumi, who clued me in to a few more, as well as the inclusion of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, noting that this is "by no means an exhaustive list of all the classic LGBTQ+ creators in kidlit," but the handful who inspired her growing up. I grew up loving these creators as well and, as I communicated with Tsurumi and reflected on their works, I was deeply moved realizing that many of them did not live to see books like this one where a queer (human) couple and their love for each other is part of the story (but not THE story). Thank you to Jarrett Dapier for creating Mr. Watson and Mr. Nelson, thank you to Andrea Tsurumi for honoring classic LGBTQ+ children's book creators and thank you to Chronicle Books for publishing Mr. Watson's Chickens!


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