Friday, June 15, 2012

Grandma Chickenlegs, by Geraldine McCaughrean

Grandma Chickenlegs 
by Geraldine McCaughrean
illustrated by Moira Kemp
©2000, Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books
ISBN 1575054159

Sent by her vain, selfish stepmother to the spooky house of Grandma Chickenlegs, Tatia uses her kind ways to win over Grandma Chickenlegs's minions and escape the hungry witch.

This retelling of the Russian Baba Yaga story takes some liberties with the gruesomeness of the original, but leaves the child-devouring witch as a fearsome figure. I would not choose this as a book for younger readers because of that; Grandma Chickenlegs is scarier than most other fairytale witches (Hansel and Gretel, Wizard of Oz, Snow White) I've seen in children's picturebooks and movies (with the exception of Disney's Mother Gothel). However, in a lesson for middleschoolers, I'd like to include a couple versions of a Baba Yaga tale (perhaps one with more bite) for comparison and discussion about the assimilation of fairytales.

Moira Kemp's illustrations are bright and colorful -- almost comical in the scenes in Grandma Chickenlegs's house, and cheerful when Tatia is at home with her father. Pictures cover most of both pages of the open book, with text integrated into one side. Little details, like the curlers in Grandma's green hair when she's awakened, her teddy bear, and the iron teeth left on the nightstand, will appeal to observant readers.

The story begins abruptly with a turning point in the protagonist's life: "One day, when a sudden fall of snow rubbed out the flowers, Tatia's mother died." The same brief treatment is given to the witch's threats that "My cat would claw you and my dog would bite you, and the magic elm tree outside would slash you in pieces." Some additional parallelism (as shown with the towel and then the comb that Tatia throws down to foil Grandma's pursuit) would have helped the story's pacing. However, small turns of phrase -- the witch "baring iron teeth as sharp and snapping as a bear trap"; the stepmother "a woman with eyes as sharp as needles and a soul as thin as thread" -- keep the storytelling on track (and serve to underscore the power of simile in creative writing). The introduction to the house on chicken legs  -- is it alive? haunted? -- employs descriptive language that readers may want to chew on: on "paltry poultry legs ran the rickety-rackety shack" around the yard, with a keyhole boasting "tiny, tinny teeth" and the door "squealing like a thing in pain". McCaughrean's ending, wherein the stepmother and her daughters are turned out of the house in their underclothes, is both amusing and apt punishment for their greed.

Author Info
no Illustrator Info
Medium: colored pencil

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