A noise wakes Anyaugo and she heads to the kitchen to investigate. It’s a huge chicken about to spoil the food for the New Yam festival! Will she be able to stop it, or will she need to ask her friend the Wood Wit for help? This colourful and entertaining story set in Nigeria keeps us guessing until the end.
Chicken in the Kitchen is one of those books with a cover that shouts out “pick me!” A huge bright orange chicken dominates the illustration, while a young girl with a round face and large brown eyes peers out apprehensively from behind a door. The cover is both attractive and intriguing – what is the story about?
In contrast to the burst of brilliant colour on the cover, the palette for the opening double spread is muted and sombre. Anyaugo, the young girl from the cover, lies in the greeny darkness, her eyes wide open in fear – a noise has disturbed her sleep. In the top left of the spread, we can make out a strange silhouette with a large body and beak. It looks suspiciously like a chicken … It is and it’s heading for the kitchen. Veggies are strewn on the floor, and the fridge door is open with all the food for the New Yam festival inside. Anyaugo is understandably worried, but the chicken clucks away unperturbed: “Buck buck peh-CUCK!” Poor Anyaugo, I thought at this point, but I also thought the chicken was pretty fun. Enter the Wood Wit to shake things up a little.
The Wood Wit is a nature spirit who lives in wood, and Anyaugo’s so-called friend. She has a poster of the Wood Wit on her bedroom wall, and asks for its help in dealing with the wayward chicken. The wonderful irony is that, unbeknownst to Anyaugo, the Wood Wit is the mischievous spirit manipulating the action. We, the reader, can see what is going on in the illustrations. The Wood Wit lassoes the chicken’s neck in one illustration, pulls its tail feathers in the next before (most likely) throwing a bag of flour at the beleaguered fowl. And then, it has the cheek to ask Anyaugo what she has done to the chicken! Brilliant.
I also particularly enjoyed the suspense generated in the story by Anyaugo’s character. Her apprehension about the huge chicken is obvious, but twice she builds up the courage to ask it to leave, only to falter a moment later. On both occasions, the page turn cleverly reinforces the suspense. Take Anyaugo’s second attempt at speaking out, for example. The text at the bottom of the page reads “Anyaugo lifted her chin, clenched her fists and said …” [page turn]. We really think she’s going to do it this time. But turn the page, and all she manages to say to the chicken is “Hello!” But look at the size of the feathered creature looming over her! I admire Anyaugo’s ability to stand there, let alone say something.
The chicken, as it turns out, is more than a chicken. It is a masquerade spirit that has come out to participate in the New Yam festival. Okorafor includes brief explanations of both the festival and the masquerades in her text, ensuring all readers grasp their significance. So, Anyaugo remembers what her father has told her about the masquerades as she heads to bed after the antics in the kitchen: “Masquerades were spirits of the elements, like the land and water. Others were ancestors returning to dance, showing that death was a natural part of life.”
The story ends with a glorious visual depiction of the masquerades in action at the New Yam festival. Look carefully at the final illustration and you can spot our orange feathered friend in the background, with the Wood Wit not far behind it – and still up to mischief.
Before my exploration of picture books from Nigeria, I had no knowledge of the West African masquerade tradition (or New Yam festival). I have found it fascinating to touch on this subject in both Chicken in the Kitchen and my previous read Mayowa and the Masquerades. And these stories have reminded me yet again of the importance of picture books in promoting cross-cultural understanding with even the youngest of readers.
Chicken in the Kitchen brims with energy and humour from start to finish. It is original, colourful and huge fun! My daughters and I love this wonderful book.
Chicken in the Kitchen, by Nnedi Okorafor, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (Lantana Publishing, 2015)
Nnedi Okorafor is a novelist and associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo, New York. She was born in the United States to Nigerian parents of Igbo descent. Her books are set in Africa and span a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy and magical realism. Her work has garnered many awards on the international scene, including an Africana Children’s Book Award in 2016 for Chicken in the Kitchen, a picture book inspired by a story she created for her daughter Anyaugo.
Mehrdokht Amini is an Iranian-British children’s book illustrator. She has worked with publishers around the world since graduating from Tehran University, Iran, with a degree in Graphic Design. She is based in London.
You can see a beautiful quality image of the cover of Chicken in the Kitchen together with four spreads from the book on the Lantana Publishing website. The same site also offers a wealth of teacher’s resources for the title, including further information on the masquerades and New Yam festival.