It was our very own Nathalie who planted the seed to read various versions of a book with the kids to compare and contrast the text and illustrations. I did this for the first time recently with my four year old. His teacher was reading The Little Red Hen at school, because some children were not contributing to class needs. I thought to get this book at home too, to share in what was happening in my son’s class, and discovered that this title, which I had never heard of, is wildly popular. When I looked it up in our (awesome) Toronto public library system, there were many, many renditions of the book.
Nathalie sprang to mind, and I reserved at least seven copies of the book, all of which I read to the children. The tale essentially goes like this. There is a little red hen who would like to make some bread. She seeks assistance from the other barnyard animals for planting, harvest, threshing, and milling the wheat, and baking the flour into bread. None of the animals will assist her, so she must do the difficult work on her own. Once the bread is baked, however, the animals approach and would like to have some, but she refuses as they did not help to make it.
I get the moral: if you don’t contribute to an effort, you ought not to reap the rewards. Still, I was uncomfortable: the self-righteousness of the hen hoarding the bread at the end while the other droopy-eyed animals looked on didn’t seem like such spectacular behaviour for kids or their parents to emulate either.
So I was delighted when going through our stack of The Little Red Hen books, we came across Margie Orford’s version. The story proceeds similarly to the other versions until the little red hen has baked her bread. However, when the animals come sheepishly to ask to eat the baked bread, they recognize their earlier wrongdoing in refusing to help and they bring offerings – honey, cream, jam – to the table to share. They little red hen accepts their apology and their gifts, and they eat the feast together.
Call me a softie, but I like a happy, collaborative ending. Forgiveness is important, life isn’t black and white, and our children’s books needn’t be either. An added bonus: the illustrations in Orford’s rendition are lovely.
Our first compare and contrast exercise of different versions of the same story was a success, and neither my four year old nor my seven year old tired of reading all the versions, even though many were very similar to each other. We’ll do it again, of course. And no doubt this mama will weigh in on her favourite just as much as her boys will.