AGERANGE: Ages 9 to 12.
Josh Miller is trying to discover why egg production on his family's chicken farm has dwindled. His pet chicken, Semolina, helps by trading information for pilfered sips of his grandmother's home brew. Josh alone can hear the hen, which starts to strain the friendship he has with next-door neighbor Annalee Binochette. Annalee is a few years older than Josh. Much to his dismay, she is beginning to take more interest in boys her age than in Semolina's antics. Josh's parents are also concerned about his claims, but their worry for him is soon overshadowed by the danger threatening both the pregnant Elizabeth and her unborn daughter. Elizabeth is hospitalized and put on strict bed-rest. Josh's grandmother, who dislikes Semolina, comes to help run the farm and cook meals until his mother can recover. Meanwhile, Semolina informs Josh that a fox has threatened the hens from the number three house, but promised not to attack any of them as long as they continue to buy his protection by giving him their eggs. When Josh and his father discover and repair the hole the fox uses to collect the eggs, Semolina's life is placed in danger for her part in the revelation. Although Josh protects her as best he can, Semolina disappears one day, and when Josh finds a pile of blood and feathers behind the number three house, everyone assumes the worst. After Semolina reappears a few days later, in dire need of care after her brave fight with the fox, everyone rallies to help the old hen, whose recovery is swiftly overshadowed by the arrival of Josh's sister. The book contains several Christian references to hymns and the Bible but is otherwise an excellent companion piece tonostalgic farm books like Charlotte's Web. Reviewer: Jennifer Wood
Gr 3-5- Much of the tension in this charming, witty chapter book centers around the question of whether Josh's pet hen, Semolina, really does talk. After all, she talks to Josh and to Josh alone. This wouldn't be such a problem if Semolina didn't have such important information to impart concerning a fox who has formed a gang to extort protection money (in the form of eggs) from the hens in the number three shed-dozens of eggs a day. This is a loss the Miller family can ill afford, what with Elizabeth confined to the hospital for three months awaiting the birth of a new baby. As Tucker tells his son, "Your mom and I are not good layers, and that's the truth of it." Then there's the added complication that cranky, opinionated Semolina has developed a taste for Grandma's home brew and refuses to divulge what she knows unless she's paid off in "brown water." Tucker is as unable to believe in a tippling hen as a loquacious one and disconcertingly seems to suspect Josh of sampling the liquor. Grandma just plain dislikes the hen. It all comes to a head when Semolina is attacked and carried off by the fox. Family and friends rally round and Josh is able to appreciate how loved and supported he has been all along. Elliott's personality-laden pencil illustrations extend readers' sense of Cowley's characters. The image of Tucker, scratching his head as he tries to negotiate the tricky emotional ground between sympathy for Josh and respect for prickly Grandma, speaks volumes. Original, well-crafted, and touching, Cowley's story begs to be read aloud-over and over again.-Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY
Channeling Dick King-Smith, Cowley offers a warmhearted tale set on a chicken farm featuring a lad with a feathered confidante that talks-though only to him. In the double-stranded plot, Josh's mother is abruptly off to the hospital to prevent another miscarriage, while back on the farm eggs are disappearing. Josh's hen Semolina fearfully tells him that there's a fox on the prowl, but Josh can't convince his distracted dad. Then Semolina disappears, leaving blood and scattered feathers. Though the humans in the cast display individual quirks and feelings, it's Semolina, temperamental and occasionally poetic-"Sun egg or moon egg, fast time or slow time, foxes hunt chickens with big sharp teeth"-who's the most vividly drawn character here. Elliot provides an aerial view of the farm, plus a spare selection of spot art. Tucking in just the right number of subplots, the author builds to a climax infused with the sense of the miraculous, leverages happy endings all around (except for the fox) and closes with a twist. Not a standout, but expertly done. (Fantasy. 9-11)