This unassuming two-colour book from American illustrator Margaret A. Hartelius is a forgotten comedy gem. A cheeky chicken, intent on stealing a worm from a pot of fisherman’s bait, is sent away in disgrace. But she quickly cheers up when she spots an egg on the ground and happily settles down to incubate it.
The egg hatches, and to everyone’s surprise – not least the chicken’s – rather than a fluffy yellow chick, a cute green alligator emerges. Undaunted, the chicken adopts the baby reptile as her own and nurtures it tenderly. Only problem is, alligators grow. And this one grows fast, eating everything in sight, from pumpkins to corn to apples – including the ladder used to pick the apples! The chicken, wings folded crossly, gives her adopted child a stern telling-off. But this doesn’t curb the voracious alligator’s appetite. And when he moves onto to eating the washing, the water pump and even the tractor, the farmer’s patience finally snaps and the ’gator is banished.
Mournfully, the alligator and his mum leave the farm – watched from behind a tree by a sneaky fox with devious intentions. Seizing his opportunity, the fox snatches the chicken and heads off into the woods with his prize. But he hasn’t bargained for the alligator. The loyal ‘child’ rushes back to rescue his mum, and in doing so earns the eternal gratitude of the farmer. Back home, the now-forgiven reptile is rewarded with a stack of pancakes and, cosily curled up under the hen coop with a sack of dog biscuits beside him, he settles down to sleep. Harmony is restored.
Although there is plenty of entertaining mischief and mayhem, at its heart this is a touching story of the parent-child bond. It celebrates the power of love and the importance of forgiveness (even if your precious tractor has just been chewed to bits). Hartelius, a commercial artist as well as an illustrator, brilliantly portrays all the various emotions of both the chicken and the alligator, as well as of the farmer and his flock – often just through tiny changes in their eyes, or, in the chicken’s case, her beak. And this doughty little character has the most expressive pair of wings you could ever hope to see.