Amid the unprecedented, apocalypse-Blockbuster-invoking quarantine era COVID-19, I find myself gulping back every homeschool joke I’ve ever made. For my trio of girls ages ranging from one to ten, we are now in full social distancing homeschool mode. I’ve hung up a color-coded chart detailing their daily intervals of physical activity, math, science, arts and crafts, and, of course, reading. Never have my fellow English teacher husband and I been so grateful for the uncanny emotional attachment to books that is the foundation for the at-home library we’ve collected for our daughters. We definitely have a heightened appreciation for our Amazon delivery drivers who allow us to add new titles to kids’ shelves when we get tired of reading our toddler’s well-worn Christmas or Moana books but know cabin fever hasn’t quite pushed us to reading her our copies of Salman Rushdie or Toni Morrison.
It was perfect, then, when we heard that two of our favorite adult authors, Viet Thanh Nguyen (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer) and Thi Bui (award-winning author and illustrator of The Best We Could Do), had written a children’s book with two of their own kids. Their collaborative creation, Chicken of the Sea, follows a trio of chickens as they leave the farmyard to embark on an adventure on a pirate ship helmed by a treasure-hungry rat. The very non-piratical chickens are thrown into battle against the Terrier King and his dog knights. By and for children and their parents alike, the book alludes to Heart of Darkness and The Grinch, colorfully illustrated by Hien Bui-Stafford who is clearly talented like his mother.
The best way that I can review Chicken of the Sea is to offer you a glimpse of what it was like to read (and re-read) it to our almost-three-year-old bookworm, Vi. She is, you’ll need to know, a child born in the year of the fire rooster, and she lives up to the character of her zodiac animal—always adorned in layers of patterned clothing, costume jewelry, and the flora and fauna crowns she collects on our walks—yet she is no doubt uniquely herself, unlike anyone I’ve ever met before. Given her age, she is, too, in the phase when she is insistent to see herself: “Mom, draw me.” “Mom, Mom! It’s the shadow of my hand!” “Look, Mom, it’s me. Look, Mom! Look, look, look! Mom! Mom? Mom. Mom! ” Part of my role is to respond to her call for recognition to assure her visibility, to show her the value of being her unique version of her fire rooster self.
All of this is to say that it really resonated with our daughter when the trio of protagonists call out, “We’re chicken. And that’s a good thing!” These chickens are not cut out to be pirates, but throughout the book, the father-son storytelling team of Viet and Ellison spotlight why it’s cool to be a chicken: they withstand seasickness, value sunshine over gold, and can enjoy a feast with the dogs they were conscripted to fight against. Vi was drawn to the chicken characters and their likeability. “Mom,” she said, “they’re roosters. Like me.” And, as all good humor does, the book made Vi laugh when the chickens barf and poop. When I asked the younger Nguyen author which of his characters he identified with most, he echoed the same: “All of the chickens, because they’re funny.”
And even if your child reader is not a rooster in spirit, the first sentence of the book is, simply, “You.” This point-of-view compels you to put down the fried chicken drumstick (by the way, it’s gotta be from Popeye’s because, as Ellison said during our interview, “The best chicken is Popeye’s, because it tastes good.”) and empathize with the unexpected perspective of chickens-turned-pirates. Getting kids to empathize and identify with the unexpected is ineffably important in our world today.
Equally important is that the book showcases the joy of parents and children creating together, which is a positive opportunity to take advantage of during our pandemic confinement. As Ellison said in our interview, he loves to do things with his family. In addition to “play[ing] a game with my daddy called ‘Kick My Butt’,” his favorite part of writing a book was “Doing it with my daddy. There was no hard part.” Even if you’re not a Pulitzer Prize winner, Ellison reminds us that all you need to create a book is “paper, a pencil, an imagination, and help.” Ellison and so many children could remember this COVID-19 pandemic not as a time of disease or fear or isolation but a time of family togetherness and creation. After reading Chicken of the Sea, Vi and I will surely create a book together and add that to our growing collection of wind chimes of strung recyclables, straw-and-paper kites, and countless painted rocks and toilet paper rolls. And I hope Ellison is using this time to bring to life what he told me is his next book idea: Potatoes of the Sea. Those are going to be some salty pirates!
Chicken of the Sea
Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ellison Nguyen
Illustrated by Thi Bui and Hien Bui-Stafford
Jade Hidle is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and a PhD in literature from UC San Diego. Her work has appeared in New Delta Review, Spot Lit, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels.