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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, written by Kelly Jones. Random House, 2015. $8.99 ages 9 and up

"The disappearing chicken laid an egg this morning! I could tell it wasn't Henrietta's because it wasn't glass; it was like a fancy organic brown egg that rich people buy at the store. I took it out of the nest box really carefully and put it in the fridge like Agnes said to, even though I could hardly wait to scramble it and eat it for breakfast."

Sophie Brown and her family have inherited a farm from their Great-Uncle Jim. Her dad no longer has a job, her mother works from home. The farm seems the perfect place to start anew. It is a rude awakening for the young girl, but she will make the best of it.

Finding a flyer that offers unusual chickens for sale is enough to stir Sophie's interest and have her start a letter writing exchange with the people at Redwood Farm Supply - well, not an exchange until she receives a letter from Agnes who is using a broken typewriter and offering cryptic advice to be careful about the first unusual chicken Sophie has encountered. Agnes is quite sure it belonged to Uncle Jim, and its existence should be kept a secret. Sophie replies to that first note from Agnes with a number of observations and some pertinent questions. Turns out that Henrietta is a Bantam White Leghorn, and she is definitely unusual. Sophie is aghast when someone tries to steal her pet chicken and she lets Agnes know about it. She is sure that Agnes will offer advice.

In the meantime we are learning the rest of Sophie's story through her letters to her beloved and deceased grandmother. She addresses them to Mariposa Garcia Gonzalez in a variety of different locations: Heaven, A Better Place than this Farm, Somewhere Gregory can't deliver the mail to, Somewhere wonderful, I hope. These letters keep Abuelita up on the goings on at the farm ... all of them!

"I wish I'd asked you about your chickens while you were alive. What kind did you have when you were a girl, before you came to this country? Did you name them, or just eat them? I know you had to be practical and use what you had. But if you're still keeping an eye on me, would you please keep an eye on my chickens too? They aren't very good at keeping quiet yet."

She is sending notes to Great-Uncle Jim, also deceased but sure to be interested in what is happening at the farm and with the chickens:

"You could build just about anything out of all that junk. If you had enough time and imagination (and could remember which pile the thing you needed was in). I guess that's why you saved it. Henrietta follows me around as I carry things from pile to pile, doing that very quiet cluck, and turning her head to look at everything. She loves it when there's a bug under a piece of junk - she pounces on it and gobbles it right up."

The chickens that Sophie becomes mother hen and caregiver to are a motley and talented bunch - and someone else wants them. It is a test of her endurance to keep them safe, with help from Agnes and Gregory, the mail carrier who also knows their secrets.

There are so many wonderful and humorous surprises in this book! Readers learn a great deal about the chickens themselves - how to raise them, their many varied characteristics, housing for them. Katie Kath's terrific illustrations match the tone at every turn. There is so much personality on every page. They are serious when Kelly Jones shares information, hilarious when introducing the unusual birds themselves, and warm-hearted when Sophie speaks to or sends letters to those she loves.

You will root for Sophie from start to finish. It's tough to be the new kid in town, and she works hard to prove herself trustworthy and honest, despite the fact that 'one of their own' wants Uncle Jim's chickens for herself and will go to any lengths to get them.

Life on the farm may not have been her first choice; Sophie makes the absolute best of it! Emotional, often hilarious, and very charming, your kids deserve to hear her story.

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