Storytellers, in particular, might want to take note of Janice N. Harrington’s new picture book, Busy-Busy Little Chick, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. As she explains below, Harrington’s story of easily distracted Mama Nsoso and her helpful baby chick is based on a fable told by the Nkundo people of Central Africa.
With rhythm and grace, Harrington—a poet, storyteller and former children’s librarian—weaves an entertaining tale, which begs to be read aloud, buoyed by Pinkney’s brightly colored, energetic watercolor and ink illustrations.
I interrupted their storytelling and painting today to chat briefly about the book.
Janice, tell me about your research for this story.
First, I had to fall in love with the original story.
At my library, I found “The Hen’s House” in Alice D. Cobble’s Wembi, the Singer of Stories. The story’s hen was a chicken after my own heart, easily distracted and prone to procrastination. But the story made me remember my first grade reader, which included a story about monkeys who played on sunny days, instead of repairing the holes in their roof that always leaked in the rain—proof that stories breed more stories and storytellers. Every time Hen starts to build her house, the sight of a worm distracts her. “Thus the morning passed, also the afternoon. She never thought about the house again.”
To write the story, I knew that I had to find more about the original storytellers. Cobble gives minimal clues, but additional sleuthing about the mission at Monieka where Cobble worked showed the storytellers were probably Nkundo. I turned then to early dictionaries of Christian missionaries and the work of Mabel H. Ross and Barbara K. Walker, scholars of Nkundo folklore. I also used my knowledge of West African storytelling, which shares many similarities with the storytelling of the Nkundo—the use of ideophones, patterned repetitions, audience participation and stories as vehicles for proverbial sayings.
Cobble’s fable warns, like Aesop’s “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” against putting off until tomorrow what you should do today. In “Hen’s House,” the hen is the primary actor. But I wanted the story to appeal to a younger audience, which led me to make the classic shift to having the smallest and least likely character triumph in the end.
How many drafts were there? Can you talk about the challenges of incorporating the words and storytelling techniques of the Nkundo people?
How can an itty-bitty, four-paragraph fable take months of research, years of writing and rewriting, and reams of paper? I originally envisioned the story for younger elementary readers (ages 6-8). The final draft of that version was longer and more lyrical. But the topic seemed to lend itself to a younger age range, preschool–kindergarten, and so multiple revisions refined the story in that direction.
I relied heavily on the work of early missionaries to find the words that I needed from the Lonkundo language. But [it] is nuanced. Did I mean a house or a house for chickens? The dictionaries gave differing answers. Additionally, the Lonkundo language is tonal. It’s not enough to know the meaning of the word; you have to know how to pronounce the tones.
What does the enterprising author-librarian do? I called the Church of Latter Day Saints (thank you!), who still has missionaries in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Church contacted its missionaries and rescued a struggling writer.
Elizabeth Hearne has stressed grounding stories culturally and geographically as an ethical responsibility for storytellers. Lonkundo storytellers have conventions that help their audiences to participate and “own” the story. Ideophones, for example, are like small sound tracks and descriptive systems. As a writer, though, for American readers, I had to judge when the repetition moved the story forward and when the repetition slowed the story down inappropriately. What Lonkundo words would enhance the story? Children are natural linguists. I knew that a child-listener would enjoy the music and fun of new sounds. Mama Nsoso (rhymes with En-go-go) for Mama Chicken. I wanted the story to sound good to the child-listener.
Again, stories breed stories and storytellers. I want future storytellers to know the story’s roots and to build upon them in the creation of their own stories.
Brian, there is no particular landscape for this tale. Was that intentional on your part?
Very intentional. Rather than focus on the details of a defined place, I felt it more important to convey the intimacy between Mama and the chicks, as well as the closeness of their little world.
Janice’s narrative is so evocative of a child’s experiences. To me, the setting can be any place that a small child feels safe in the “landscape” of their immediate surroundings.
Tell me about your color palette choices.
Colors have such emotions associated with them; they also convey a sense of character. When deciding on which watercolor hues I would employ, I studied fluffy little chicks for months—their intense yellows, the variegated brightness of their newborn fluff. Then I started experimenting with an array of yellows and oranges, all bright and playful, to capture the feeling of fluffiness, playfulness and feathery fun.
I also wanted to depict the ways in which those adorable chicks wobbled as they walked in search of food and a new home. Their tiny, bright bodies express such hope and anticipation.
The use of reds and warm undertones are meant to portray Mama as a bold maternal presence, who has a warm, loving heart. The backgrounds used in the night scenes are complementary blues, greens and purples, meant to cradle this vulnerable, determined family.
BUSY-BUSY LITTLE CHICK. Text copyright © 2013 by Janice N. Harrington. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Brian Pinkney. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York.
Brian Pinkney photographed by Christine Simmons.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.