The Chicken Problem is a picture book that introduces various math concepts, via fictional story, without feeling the least bit didactic. That's a pretty fine accomplishment, but about what one would expect from co-authors Jennifer Oxley (recipient of an Emmy Award for her role as director on Nick Jr.'s Little Bill) and Billy Aronson (author of plays and text for various television shows). They are currently working on a math-themed television show for PBS Kids based on the characters in The Chicken Problem.
The premise of The Chicken Problem is that Peg and Cat, and their friend Pig, are on a farm getting ready to enjoy a picnic of "fresh and juicy and gooey" pie. There's a piece just the right size for each of them. All seems well, until they notice that there's an extra, really little piece of pie. Cat takes action, and gets a "really little chicken" out of the chicken coop. Alas, Cat neglects to secure the chicken coop, and soon Peg, Cat, and Pig are scrambling to return 100 escaped chicks to their home.
It's clear from the outset that The Chicken Problem is focused on math. Each page has a little math equation in the lower outside corner, counting up by increments of 1 from "1+1=2" to "24+1=25". The first page also shows, in the background, one piece of pie + another piece of pie = 2 (where the pie is sketched instead of spelled out). The clouds in the sky are shaped like the infinity symbol. The background of some of the pages, including the endpages, is graph paper. And, as she is collecting the chickens to return to their coop, Peg counts up to 10. These are just a few of the math-related details.
But what makes the book work is that text isn't all about the math. There's quite a bit of silliness, too. There's the focus on pie, which is always reader-friendly. And text like this:
""One hundred chickens running wild!"
There were one hundred chickens going crazy all over the place! Chickens leaping! Chickens skipping! Chickens hopping! Chickens doing somersaults! Chickens standing on their heads! Chickens standing on each other's heads! Chickens doing the chicken dance! Chickens bending over and wiggling their bottoms in the air! There were chickens chickens chickens chickens chickens everywhere!"
I challenge you to read the above aloud without smiling. Seriously. Later Cat dances a little dance and Peg sings a little song as they are collecting the chickens. The text any time Peg talks or sings is in a different font (like a child's handwriting), making it easy for young readers to distinguish Peg from the narrator. And making the book that much more fun to read aloud. I mean, this book would be a GREAT classroom read aloud for first or second graders. Truly excellent. Educational in a small way, positive about math in a big way, and just pure fun in the most important way.
Speaking of pure fun, a detail that I quite liked is that the acknowledgements page at the end of The Chicken Problem includes a thank you for the one hundred chickens, many of which are individually named in humorous fashion ("Little Red Riding Chicken", "The artist formerly known as chicken", etc.).
The illustrations in The Chicken Problem, apparently computer generated, are full of energy, and easy to visualize as an animated television show. The pages showing the 100 chickens bobbing about the farmyard are hilarious. Cat, though a bit of a big-eyed purple blob, manages to convey what he needs to convey, without any words. And Peg, though cartoonish, also seems ready to dance off of the page.
The Chicken Problem is probably not a good choice for most preschoolers. The illustrations are quite busy, and the presence of numbers and equations might even be offputting. But for the K-3 crowd, The Chicken Problem should be a hit. Highly recommended for library, classroom, and home use.
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 25, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).