Since we have a child, naturally we read a lot of kids’ books. One of the current favorites is the story of “Henny Penny” from the Treasury of Bedtime Stories. Which might be one of the worst abortions in the history of published children’s literature.

Now, I confess that I haven’t read many versions of this story, despite being familiar with the general outline. I’m not sure what liberties the adapters might have taken in preparing the version that appears in this anthology. But let’s review the plot:

  • Henny Penny–a chicken–is going about her chicken business when she’s hit on the head by a falling acorn.
  • Being a chicken, naturally she assumes that the sky is falling, and sets off to warn the king.
  • In usually fairy tale fashion, she accumulates a group of friends on her trip. They are all also poultry: Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey. Her assertion that the sky is falling sways all of them to her cause without much argument.
  • They journey on a little, and encounter Foxy Loxy–a fox–who leads them off on a purported shortcut to the king.
  • When Foxy Loxy leads the friends into a cave, Henny Penny becomes frightened, and runs off.
  • She returns home, no worse for the wear, and lives happily ever after.

The storytelling here is atrocious. I mean, sure, it’s a kids’ story. But there’s no arc whatsoever: Henny Penny learns nothing, does not change or learn. She’s the Fool in the eye of the hurricane, traipsing along as the story happens around, but not to, her.

The pivotal moment of narrative, when Henny Penny decides to abandon the group of friends that’s she’s gathered to their fates, comes totally out of nowhere. No explanation is given for why Henny Penny–clearly not the most perceptive of birds–should suddenly sense danger in Foxy Loxy’s shortcut when none of her friends suspect a thing.

And while the text specifically rehearses the places Henny Penny passes on her way back home, mentioning where each of her late companions joined her ultimately senseless quest, as though to mourn their passing, she shows no sign of recognition, or of guilt. The last line of the story mentions, almost nostalgically, that “the king never did hear” about the crisis Henny Penny initially set out to report.

The thing that tips the story over the edge for me, however, is the illustrations.

Three silent and unnoticed animals follow the group of fowl on their trip. One is a worm from Goosey Loosey’s market basket, one a frog from Ducky Lucky’s pond, and the third is the squirrel whose stray acorn set the events of the story in motion. They are appear aware of Foxy Loxy’s ulterior motives, watching worriedly as he leads the group on his “shortcut,” but make no move to intervene.

Foxy Loxy himself is so villainously depicted as to be comical, with his long pencil mustache and–I kid you not–monocle.

The last illustration is of Henny Penny at home, carefree in her survival, accompanied by all three of the mute chorus. She sips a drink (pink lemonade?), the frog luxuriates in a washtub, the worm enjoys a shiny red apple, and the squirrel fondly regards an acorn. Possibly the very same acorn that fell on Henny Penny’s head. Or is he grinning because it was never an accident at all?