Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hen Haven: Squawking Matilda by Lisa Horstman

One day Mae received a note from Aunt Susan.

"Dear Mae,

How's my favorite niece? (Mae giggled at this joke; she was Aunt Susan's only niece.) I have a special job for you. I know how you love projects.

One of my chickens doesn't like it on my farm. Maybe she would like it better on yours."

Mae loves projects. She's just finished an elaborate litterbox cover to provide toileting privacy for her cat, Cat. But when Matilda the hen arrives, Mae is impressed by her beauty but dismayed by the persnickety personality of her new poultry pet. Feeding her and cleaning out her stinky, stinky coop cuts into Mae's project time considerably, and when Mae is distracted by designing sweaters to keep the cows' udders warm and building a clubhouse for socializing sheep, Matilda begins to languish from neglect, finally losing almost all her feathers.

Mae is appalled by her naked charge. What will Aunt Susan think when she comes for her annual visit? Mae gathers up the feathers and tries gluing them to Matilda's skin. But Matilda just squawks in exasperation and pulls the feathers off as fast as Mae can replace them. Mae stops to think.

"I need to find a better way to keep you warm!"

"Aha!" yelled Mae. Using leftover scraps from other projects., she made something special for Matilda--a chicken jacket!

And it seems it was the lack of style that was causing Matilda's decline. Dressed in an elegant chicken jacket, decorated with clinking coins and shells and charms, (and provided with a fresh food and a clean coop daily by the penitent Mae), Matilda begins to thrive. Her feathers begin to grow luxuriously as she struts by the less fashionable hens on the farm, and Mae is sure Aunt Susan will be impressed.

But by the time Aunt Susan's long awaited visit comes round, Matilda is nowhere to be found. Mae and Aunt Susan anxiously follow a trail of the shredded scraps of that beautiful chicken jacket, while Cat trails along, looking resolutely innocent. And then, at the end of the trail they find her.

Squawking Matilda is now laying Matilda, sitting proudly on her own tidy nest, snugly padded with bits and pieces of that wonderful jacket, and filled with newly-laid eggs.

Lisa Horstman's high-style illustrations for her newest project, Squawking Matilda, (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) are an admirable amalgam of old and new. Mixed media include the use of original puppets, heads and hands sculpted from polymer clay, dressed in hand-sewn or knitted costumes, and digitally colorized and posed against painted backgrounds.

A fellow Knoxvillian, Horstman has several handsome picture books rooted in our local Smoky Mountain setting, including the glowingly illustrated The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball, The Smokies Yukky Book (with naturalist Doris Gove), and The Troublesome Cub in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A trailer for Squawking Matilda can be seen here.

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