The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane Auch, illustrated by Herm Auch

2009. New York: Holiday House.

Ages: Clearly aimed at pre-school and early elementary, but older elementary students (and even adults) may enjoy the puns and appreciate Henrietta’s determined spirit.

Genre: Fictional picture book


Henrietta the chicken loves to read, and reads aloud to her aunts, Morissa, Golda, and Liz. She reasons that if reading books is such fun, writing them will be even better–so she checks out a book on writing from the librarian. The eight “rules” in that book pertain only to writing stories, but writing stories is just what Henrietta wants to do. With rule one–“You need a main character”–we’re off and running, and the barnyard comes to life with discussions of how to make a story entertaining. At first, each of the aunts wants to be the main character, but rule three–“Give your main character a problem”–scares them, and Henrietta has to invent a new character: Maxine. With imagination and spunk, Henrietta works her way through the rules, one by one, building a story with a main character, problem to solve, sensory details, a “what if” plot, and the rest. The aunts are eager to offer advice, but it’s clear Henrietta is the writer in the coop. Aunt Golda, who appears nervous over the plot (It involves a wolf), seems eager to have the story over with, and her recurring suggestion to write “THE END” is very funny. Henrietta receives a bad review and a very stern rejection from a publisher, but she refuses to give up (despite hurt feelings), and in the end, she gets the fans every writer hopes for. Though it does contain many tips for writing a good story, underneath all that, this is a book about believing in yourself when others don’t. Henrietta shows why writers are sometimes heroes.

In the Classroom

1. The cover shows Henrietta with a typewriter–a writing tool that may not be familiar to all your students. Begin by showing the cover and asking what students think this book might be about. What are the visual clues that tell us? Notice the glasses on Henrietta’s head, the paper in the typewriter, and the rather tense look on her face. Clearly, she is focusing hard on her work! Explain what a typewriter is–and if you happen to have one at your school, let students see how it works. (This can spark quite a long discussion about typewriters and computers or other communication devices–so you may wish to save the actual demonstration for the end of your lesson.)

2. Share the book, taking time to read not only the main text, but the comments from the chicken aunts, which appear in bubbles. Be sure students know which one is Golda–as she has quite a lot to say about ending the story at various points.

3. Repeatedly, Aunt Golda tries to end the story. Why does she keep doing this? Does she have good suggestions, or is it important for Henrietta to keep going? Ask students how they know, as writers, when they come to the “end” of a story they are writing. Does a writer just sense that it’s time for the story to end? And by the way, is it necessary to write THE END?

4. When Henrietta finishes her story, she decides to send it to a publisher. Explain a little about this process. In school, publishing might mean making your own book with a cover. In the bigger world outside school, publishing often means sending a book away for someone else to print and illustrate. How many of your students think they might want to do this one day?  

5. After many months, the publisher sends Henrietta a rejection letter. This means they do not want to publish her book. Does this feel like a sad moment? Why? What does Henrietta do about this? You may also notice that the rejection letter is rather rude. Is this OK? Could the publisher have given the same message in a more polite way?

6. Notice the page where Henrietta adds colors to her books. She starts with just yellow, then adds one color at a time. What happens as she adds each color? Would your students guess that The Plot Chickens has even more than four colors? Why is color so important to readers?

7. When Henrietta receives a bad review from the Corn Book, she hears a voice in her head. What is that voice saying to her? Ask your students if they can understand how Henrietta feels at this point. Have any of them ever felt this way about their writing? Why? What should Henrietta do about that voice in her head?

8. In the end, even though the publisher and reviewer do not care for Henrietta’s story, the children at the library love it. What does this teach us about writing? How do your students feel about Henrietta’s story (printed in full on the final page)? You may wish to write individual or class reviews of your own.

9. Should Henrietta write more books? Or should she stop now? After all, she’s only a chicken! If your students were to write advice letters to Henrietta, what would they say? Try it, and make a class book of “Dear Henrietta” notes of encouragement.

10. How many of the eight rules can your students recall? Make a list. You may need to read parts (or all) of the book a second time. What do your young writers think of these eight rules for writing stories? Are they good ones? Can they think of any other good tips that the author forgot? Make your own class list of “rules” (or tips) for writing well, whether you are writing stories or anything else.

11. This book is filled with puns, beginning with the title. Your students may or may not notice them–though you will! If they do notice, you may want to explain what a pun is, and why some people find them amusing while others think they are just plain silly.

12. Look up The Plot Chickens online, and read portions of several reviews.  Most are very positive; this is an extremely popular book! But you may find one that is not so positive. Talk about this. Does a writer have to please everyone? Or is it more important, like Henrietta, to write a story that you, the writer, really love? Does it take courage to be a good writer? Why?

Coming up here at Gurus . . .

Look for a review of Maribeth Boelts’ charming and poignant tale, Those Shoes, now available in a paperback edition. This story will touch your heart, and while suitable for very young students, it has a message for readers of all ages. As always, thank you for visiting–stop by again, and bring friends!