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The Little Red Hen: a movie in a book

Full disclosure: I know Annie West, the illustrator; but only a little; and it hasn't influenced my opinion of this book in any way.

Maybe genius is too strong a word for it, but this book has left such a positive impression on our story time that I have to say something jolting about it. It is a gift, a cause for celebration. What is terrible is that the talent, imagination, thinking, effort and time that goes into such "children's books", and in particular this one, goes so unrecognised. (For example, I don't think this one is even in print anymore.)

Annie West has, with phenomenal attention to detail and (I would guess) a lot of tea, sweat and tears, given us a movie in a book. Let me say that again - this book is a movie. The standard camera angles are all there: extreme long shot, long shot, medium shot and close up. The angles are there, ranging from bird's eye to eye level. The camera movements are given a still treatment: pans, tilts and dolly shots. But Annie's eye takes us way beyond these standard tools of the trade; her framing of the action and choice of angles are what make the story come alive, giving an otherwise dull farmyard arrival scene a Wild West showdown feel, or giving an uphill climb the proper sense of just how much effort it's going to be.

In terms of location scouting for the shoot, Annie might not have had to go that far for inspiration considering she lives on a farm herself, but with a slight of hand and ink she has transformed her Co Sligo countryside into something classical, and given Drumcliff a French facelift for the town scenes. It brings to mind for me a miniature, self-contained universe, like that realised in, say, Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources; and this fits in perfectly with the tale's universality, Little Red Hen being a folk tale as old as the hills. Or think of Kavanagh's line: "I made the Iliad from such /A local row."

The characters - namely: the little red hen, the fat pink pig, the black-tailed sheepdog, and the tall grey goose - are superbly cast (some having roles in Annie's own 'Moxie the Underdog' also) and give pitch perfect performances, ranging easily across friendly, lazy, hard-working, brave, adventurous, excited, curious to chastising and chastened - challenging emotional states for children's book drawings.

The "screenplay" was written by one John Escott and his control of the material is as perfect as Annie's. It has a gentle, laconic, effortless feel to it, as if everything was just so; a beautiful internal rhythm and pattern. The "And she did" refrain is a lovely touch, and it has become almost a catchphrase for me and my children.

The moralising at the end is minimised, and the little red hen is matter-of-fact and rational in her scolding of her lazy friends: she simply asks them whether they helped her make the bread (leaving Annie's close ups to do the accusing), lets them answer and concludes: "Then you will not help me eat my bread." The movie-book ends as it began with a return to the birds-eye view of the world the characters occupy. (I kinda wish this shot was not an exact repeat of the opener, that it had been given a slight tweak to indicate a subtle change in the dynamic of the farmyard, but then again one's imagination does that job just as well thanks to the impact of the tale itself.)

A great, great work of art. (So much do we love it, we have one of the original drawings in our sitting room!)

!!!!!!!! = 8 thumbs up from us for The Little Red Hen (Brimax). Buy it here >>>

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