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Gr 6-9 A funny, sometimes poignant novel set in the late 1970s. Eleven-year-old Don, a loner, gains local fame when he wins a contest judging chickens based on their wing shape, comb texture, and other exhibition standards. His poultry skills bring him new friends and the first bit of self-confidence he's ever had, but also set him up for surprises and disappointments and accelerate his parents' marital troubles. At the same time, he uncovers hidden truths about his older sister, who supposedly died when he was a baby. Don's matter-of-fact narrative often jumps from one topic to another, while the tone remains consistent whether he's relating humorous conversations with his imaginary brother or sad revelations about his mother's neglect. His town of Horse Island, LA, is a delightfully quirky place in which a grocery store also sells furniture, nearly everyone has alliterative names, and chicken knowledge turns a kid into a celebrity. There aren't many jokes in this novel, but it's funny throughout, and Don is interesting and likable. At the same time, it's a perceptive family story. The mother's antics are wild and the father's passivity is frustrating, but they still ring true, especially in the ways they affect Don. His transformation into a kid who can make a tough decision about his future develops subtly but convincingly. With strong characters, interesting concepts, and a deft comedic touch, this novel should appeal to fans of Louis Sachar and Jack Gantos.-Steven Engelfried, Multnomah County Library, OR
What my parents told me wasn't really the truth, but I didn't find this out until I was twelve years old. Until then, I thought my name was Don. Actually, they told me my name was Stanley when I was eleven, but only because I found my birth certificate, because I was cleaning out the big closet, because my mother was having the "Power Couples" over to our house for dinner, because she thought she could get stuff from them if she gave them some eggs. I guess that doesn't really make sense, so maybe I should start from a couple of years ago, on my eleventh birthday, when things started happening.
But you know what? Maybe before I tell you that, I should tell you who I am and where I live and why I live there and some other stuff that you might want to know about me.
My name is Stanley Schmidt and I live on a chicken farm in Horse Island. It isn't really an island and there aren't a lot of horses there, but there are a lot of chickens. Almost everyone has them, and people drive from miles away just to buy their eggs in Horse Island. The town has always been filled with chicken farms, but it wasn't until one of the people from there, Jonathan Jacobs, moved to Lafayette and became a weatherman that people started wanting eggs from Horse Island chickens. He talked about the town all the time during his weather report and would say stuff like, "Tomorrow is going to be a sunny day. I'm sure all the chickens back on my parents' farm in Horse Island are going to enjoy it and give some delicious eggs. Maybe even a double yolk."
Because he talked about Horse Island all the time, people from other towns like Cow Island, Forked Island, Pecan Island, Kaplan, and Abbeville drove to Horse Island to buy eggs.
I wasn't born in Horse Island, though. I was born in Shreveport, but when I was a baby, my parents and I moved to the chicken farm in Horse Island.
My sister, Dawn, didn't move with us because my mother told me that Dawn had died from scarlet fever when she was fifteen and I was just a baby. Although I didn't remember her, I knew what she looked like because we had a bunch of pictures of her in dance costumes all over the house.
Dawn and I didn't look alike at all, even though she was my sister. She was thin with straight brown hair, and her skin looked like she'd been out in the sun a lot, and her eyes were kind of the color of the insides of a pecan. I had green eyes and wore glasses and was short and I had reddish hair that was kind of curly and my skin was white, except for a bunch of freckles.
Anyway, the reason my parents and I moved from Shreveport was because my father inherited the chicken farm from his uncle. Not Stanley, whom I was supposedly named after, but Sam. In Uncle Sam's will, he said that my parents could live in the house for ten years if they kept at least twenty-five chickens at all times. Uncle Sam's lawyer had someone come and count the chickens every month and my mother called this person the "rodent counter." My parents were allowed three warnings if they didn't have twenty-five chickens when they were counted. After the third warning, the house and land would be donated to the American Poultry Association. After ten years of keeping twenty-five chickens, my parents could do whatever they wanted with the farm.
My mother said Uncle Sam had gone insane because he'd spent so many years alone with a bunch of chickens. I'd never met my father's uncle Sam or anyone else in my family. I didn't have any aunts or uncles that I knew about, and I'd never met my grandparents because my mother said that her mother and father had been killed when a tornado tore through their house. And that sharks had attacked my father's parents during a fishing trip off the coast of Texas.
But even though I'd never met my father's uncle Sam, I liked him a lot because I loved the chicken farm he'd given us. My mother wouldn't let me go into the coop alone because she was scared they'd peck my eyes out and then she'd have to go in and get me. So I spent all of my free time sitting near the fence that separated our backyard from the chicken yard.
The chicken yard was just a big yard surrounded by a chain-link fence. When the chickens weren't in their nests laying eggs, I'd watch them dance in the yard or roll in the dirt. When one got close enough to the fence, I'd poke my fingers through one of the holes and try to pet it.
Sometimes I'd even talk to them about stuff at school and about this kid named Leon Leonard, who made fun of me because my mother said we kept our chickens for ambience.
The chickens would answer me back and say stuff like, "That's okay, Don. One day Leon Leonard is going to poop in his pants and not have any friends."
The chickens didn't really speak back to me. I only imagined that that's what they were saying. It was a lot more fun for me to make up what they were saying because that way they never said anything that I didn't like and so they became my best friends.
I really liked living on that farm, but my mother hated it. She never told that to people when they'd ask her why she and my father lived there. She would tell them that since she and my father were in their late thirties, they thought it was time to leave the city. Then she would add that we didn't keep the chickens to farm them because that would make us chicken farmers, and we were anything but that. She'd tell people that we kept chickens for ambience and because we loved fresh eggs.
I think this confused some people because a lot of them didn't know the meaning of the word ambience. And if they did, they didn't think scraping chicken poop off the bottoms of their shoes was ambience.
I guess I've told you all the stuff I need to for now, so I'm going to start telling you about the night of my eleventh birthday, when everything kind of started to change.
I sat on the dark pink velvet-covered sofa. If my father or I called it a couch, my mother corrected us and told us that she didn't know what we were talking about, because she didn't have a couch in her living room. She told us that she had a sofa, and that we should use the correct word.
She called it a sofa on my eleventh birthday when she shouted at me, "Don! Don't spill. Your sister loved that sofa. I'd hate to have a big stain on it because of your clumsiness."
My mother had broken the rule of no talking during regularly scheduled programs and my father, who had been taking a bite of his chicken cacciatore at the time, looked at her as if she had just given him a math problem that he didn't know the answer to.
Anyway, since it was my eleventh birthday, I decided I was going to ask my parents for a favor that I'd been wanting to ask for almost a year. It made me kind of nervous and so I started thinking about a KC and the Sunshine Band song to help me relax. I knew all of their songs because I'd won their greatest hits album at a chicken bingo at Horse Island Food and Furniture.
You see, Horse Island Food and Furniture had this contest where they put a chicken in a big cage, like about the size of a bed that two people can sleep in. On the floor of the cage was a white board with red numbers, like a big bingo card. Mr. Bufford, the owner of Horse Island Food and Furniture, put the chicken in the cage in the parking lot on Saturday mornings, right before the store opened, and everybody would watch what number the chicken used the bathroom on. Then they'd try to buy food and furniture that cost the same amount as that number. Mr. Bufford called it the "Magic Number" and one day it was 33, and my mother spent that exact amount by accident.
When it happened, the cashier smiled real big and told my mother, "Congratulations, you've reached the magic number. For one hundred dollars can you tell me 'the sentence that wins it'?"
My mother looked at the cashier and asked, "Excuse me?"
The cashier asked again, "For one hundred dollars, can you tell me 'the sentence that wins it'?"
I knew "the sentence that wins it," so I smiled and said, "Horse Island Food and Furniture does it the way I like it."
My mother looked at me and said, "Don, please. What did I tell you about not speaking unless you're spoken to?"
But then the cashier said, "He's right! Congratulations! You win one hundred dollars cash!"
My mother smiled and said, "Really? What a nice surprise!"
When the cashier gave the money to my mother, she put it all in her purse.
Then the cashier looked at me and said, "Since you helped your momma, young man, I'll give you the chance to win something as well. Can you tell me the name of the President of the United States?"
I smiled real big and said, "Jimmy Carter."
And the cashier said, "That's right. Congratulations! You have just won yourself a greatest hits album of KC and the Sunshine Band."
I had an old record player in my room and started to listen to the album every day and sometimes sang the songs in my head. Because I was trying so hard to think of the words, I'd forget what I was thinking about before I started singing. So sometimes if what I was thinking about made me nervous, I'd start singing a KC and the Sunshine Band song in my head. And it would help me forget what I was thinking about and then I wasn't so nervous.
So on the night of my eleventh birthday, I started singing "Boogie Shoes" to myself. But then I stopped because the opening song of "Happy Days" started playing on the television and my mother squealed like a pig.
Then she said, "That's 'Rock Around the Clock.' You know, that's the song Dawn danced to when she won her dance contest when she was thirteen years old."
She pointed with her chicken drumstick at Dawn's ballerina trophy that was at the top of this big bookcase in our living room.
"You know, she got her talent from me," she said. "I used to dance and could have been famous, but I decided to have a family instead."
Then my mother dropped her drumstick onto the aluminum platter and said, "I'm the one who taught her the routine."
My mother got up from her seat and started dancing to the television and pretending that she was spinning a baton. Then she kicked one leg a few times and spun around. She threw one hand in the air and said, "Dawn stole the competition by holding her right leg in the air with one hand and twirling a baton with the other. She could throw the baton in the air and then catch it with her mouth. It was really amazing and I think Dawn could have danced in Vegas if she wanted. You'd think they would have given her more than that trophy."
Happy Days came on and so my mother sat back down and stopped talking and I looked up at Dawn's dance trophy. It was a shiny, gold-plated ballerina standing about a foot tall on one toe, on top of a green aluminum base. The top of her head was about six inches from the ceiling, and it was taller than anything else on the bookcase, including the television and my mother's music box.
If you opened the lid of the music box, a ballerina popped up from shiny, dark pink fabric that was the same color as our living room walls. The ballerina stood on one toe with her arms stretched out and spun around in circles to music. It almost looked like she wanted to fly, but since she couldn't, she stayed there and danced.
Sometimes my mother would take it down and wind it up and watch the ballerina dance. And sometimes she'd even dance with the ballerina and let me watch her. When I was a little kid, I saw that movie Peter Pan and I thought maybe the ballerina in the box was a fairy like Tinker Bell. I pretended that a witch had put a curse on her so that she had to live in that box. It made me sad that she had to live there and couldn't fly away and play with other fairies. So sometimes I'd pretend that if I wound the music box up all the way and whispered, "Fly," she would stop dancing and fly up in the air.
I had never tried it though, because my mother wouldn't let me touch the music box or even get close to it. I figured out, when I got older, that the ballerina was just a plastic doll and that she wouldn't fly away if I wound up the music box as tight as I could and whispered, "Fly." I still kind of wanted to do it, though. Just to make sure.
Anyway, during a commercial break from Happy Days, I took a deep breath and was about to ask my question, when my mother started crying. She said, "The Lord took Dawn because he needed another angel in the sky."
I imagined Dawn up in heaven with a chipped front tooth from a bad baton catch and wearing a white ballerina costume with wings on her back. She was standing on a tall white column and God was looking up at her while she held one leg in the air and twirled a baton with her other hand.
I was staring straight ahead thinking about this and it made me notice a picture of Dawn on her eleventh birthday. She had a blindfold on and was wearing a pink tutu and was trying to pin the tail on a picture of a donkey. I knew it was her eleventh birthday because she was wearing a T-shirt that said, "Kiss Me! I'm 11!"
It made me smile and I guess my mother saw me looking at the picture and smiling instead of looking at her.
She yelled at me, "Don! This is important. Listen to us when we speak to you. Dick, tell him that this is important."
"This is important," my father said without looking at me, while scratching his underarm.
So I looked at my mother and saw her eyes were almost closed and her mouth was half open like she was going to cry. But then her favorite commercial came on and her eyes opened and her mouth closed.
It was a laundry detergent commercial about this Chinese couple who owned a laundry service, and when a customer asked how they got their clothes so clean, the Chinese man answered, "Ancient Chinese secret."
When the commercial was finished, my mother said, "I would love to go there because I heard that those Chinese ladies give a flawless pedicure for next to nothing. Anyway, so, Don, it's very disrespectful not to listen to me when I talk to you. Dawn would never disrespect me like that."
I looked at my mother and said, "Okay, ma'am."
When I was sure she wasn't going to talk to me anymore, I turned and looked at the television. A cake commercial came on and so I started smiling and watching my parents to see if they were thinking the same thing that I was. That there was a cake hidden somewhere in the kitchen for my birthday.
My mother looked at me and then back at the television and said, "I wish they had Chinese people in this town because we could really use a good restaurant like the one we used to eat at in Shreveport. You know, I want to move back to Shreveport and eat Chinese food."
I started thinking that maybe my mother had bought me a Chinese cake and that's why she was talking about Chinese food. I tried to imagine what Chinese cake looked like, but I couldn't, and then ! started to think that maybe my parents had gotten me a Chinese clown.
But then I stopped thinking about that because my mother started talking again.
"Dick," she said, "can you stop off at an Oriental nail shop in Lafayette tomorrow and bring me back some red polish?"
My father looked at my mother and closed his eyes and then he opened them wide like he was surprised and said, "I'm not going to Lafayette tomorrow. I'm going to Baton Rouge for an aluminum siding convention and I'm going to have to spend a couple of days there."
"When were you going to tell me this?" my mother asked.
My father stared at my mother with a blank face until she yelled, "Answer me, Dick!"
Then Happy Days came back on. I wondered if my father was going to turn back and watch television, or break the rule of no talking during regularly scheduled programs and answer my mother. He looked back and forth between the television and my mother as if he were watching a tennis match.
Excerpted from The Chicken Dance by Jacques Couvillon Copyright © 2007 by Jacques Couvillon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 13, 2013
Posted October 29, 2008
This story of young boy whose life changes dramatically after winning the town chicken judging contest was inspiring, uplifting and insightful. Don Schmidt, the main character, is so innocent in the way he sees the world that it made me want to give him a hug. His generosity even through difficult times with his mother and best friend makes me want to be a better person. I would suggest this book to not only young adults, but to anyone who wants to laugh and be inspired.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2008
How do you go from being an unknown in Horse Island to becoming famous? It's simple -- win a chicken judging contest. The minimum age for entering the contest has been lowered to eleven this year. Don Schmidt sees this as his opportunity to become more well-known and to make a difference in his normal ho-hum life. He rents all kinds of different books from the library and becomes a chicken "expert." <BR/><BR/>The chicken judging contest is only the beginning of the many changes in Don's life. He lives with his Mother and Father; they don't want him to ever call them Mom and Dad. They are an unusual family who always eat TV dinners. Mother even surprises Father and Don when having a dinner party, but it is quite a hassle getting all the potatoes out of those foil trays. Don is caught looking at some papers in his parents' room, and finds out that his real name is Stanley. Mother and Father are always talking about his sister Dawn, who disappeared around the time that Don was born. Don is always living in her shadow. No mention of whether she is dead or was kidnapped intrigues Don, so he decides to go search for her. <BR/><BR/>Don does such a great job at judging chickens that he is chosen to attend the regional chicken judging event in Baton Rouge. He learns from a dancer that Dawn has been seen dancing at a club in the same town. He enlists the help of one of his friends and the boys set out on the streets and find her. Its one discovery after another while on the trail of Dawn. <BR/><BR/>This is a very exciting book with its many twists and turns. There is a certain amount of mystery involved as well as an intriguing storyline with often times very humorous portions. This is a must-read for those tweens who enjoy a story where an ordinary boy makes himself known and sets his boring life on a more exciting track. This book would definitely be enjoyed by girls as well as boys, though. There will be portions where you will be cackling with laughter. You will never do "the chicken dance" the same way again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 11, 2008