The Chicken Thief is a delightful comic ‘chase’ story with a heartwarming twist in the tail (and that would be the chicken’s tail). In time-honoured fairytale tradition, there is a dense forest, an idyllic thatched cottage, and an apparently dastardly villain.
When Fox abducts Hen and runs off with her, her animal chums – Rabbit, Bear and Rooster – are convinced she is going to be eaten, and are outraged. They set off to rescue her and a race ensues through forest, mountain and sea until finally they arrive at Fox’s underground lair. But here the story takes an unexpected turn…
The format of this wordless tale of friendship, love and loyalty is ideally suited to its story. The short but wide horizontal pages typically feature one image across a spread, enabling Fox, in the lead, to be seen on the far right, and his pursuers, trailing behind, to be viewed on the far left. The gap across the gutter emphasises the distance between the two factions, adding pace to the story. This is further enhanced by Rodriguez’s depiction of the animals’ body language, with pumping legs and arms, outstretched wings and forward-leaning ears, all suggesting urgency and speed – as well as occasional bouts of exhaustion and fear.
As well as dashing from left to right, the little creatures go over, under and even through obstacles, and sometimes they can see each other and sometimes they can’t. Most of the ink-and-wash illustrations are full bleed, but a few appear as panels. In one spread, in what appears to be a single image, the trio of pursuers is shown twice, which is slightly confusing. But on the whole the story is easy to decode.
All the characters show grit and determination, and neither party is prepared to give up easily, but Rodriguez also imbues the animals with their own individual personalities too. Bear is slow, lumbering and loyal, while Rabbit is impulsive, lively and energetic. Fox, as is appropriate to his nature, is devious, while Rooster just looks grumpy. Hen herself is enigmatic. This is a believable group of friends and you follow their adventure with recognition and compassion as well as amusement.
The backgrounds are equally important. Rodriguez, who studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg in France, uses shape and colour to provide a range of settings and emotional atmospheres. On her website she says: ‘I decided that the landscape would include the forest, the hills, and the sea, so that the reader could travel a bit. Moreover, as I liked the idea of including the cycle of the day (morning, afternoon, evening, night), I decided that my settings would involve different landscapes at various times of day.’
So the story starts in pleasant daylight-dappled greenery, moves through the moonlit forest and on to the sparse grey humps of the mountains at night. Later a sandy shoreline is suffused with the orange glow of a dawn sun, and after there’s a different shoreline bathed in lilac twilight. These different settings and times give a sense of the chase taking place across a wide distance and a long time period – three demanding days and nights in fact. Is the chase worth the effort? Only Hen can decide…
There are two sequels to The Chicken Thief – Fox and Hen Together and Rooster’s Revenge.