The hard lessons of childhood

OK. I’ve got three totally separate strains of thought going on. Thought #1 involves writing children’s books. Thought #2 involves chickens. And Thought #3 involves the Westboro Baptist Church. Hooooo-kay, you might be thinking. How will this all come together?

Trust me. And read on.

Two years ago, an author/illustrator friend of mine launched her “Children’s Book Academy,” which included a roster of classes on writing, illustrating, and marketing children’s picture books. And she all but strong-armed me into taking her first class. “I can’t do this,” I pleaded. “I write boring academic stuff.”

“Yes you can,” she responded. “You’re a natural at this.” That little bit of praise (plus a substantial discount) was enough to dip my toe in the water.  And in the very first class, we hit the ground running. Our first assignment, given right after the first class, was to bring six copies of a picture book manuscript we had written to the next class for everyone to critique. “A whole manuscript!” I cried. “I’ve never written anything like this before!”

“You’re a natural at this,” she said. Had I heard those words before? “And it doesn’t need to be the perfect, polished final product. Bring your shitty first draft.”

So my “shitty first draft” was a story about a rooster. (I’m sure you were expecting something much more profound than that!) This rooster just randomly shows up in a city alley and makes his presence known by crowing at 4:00AM. The people in the neighborhood either love him or hate him. One feeds him birdseed every morning. Another sprays him with his garden hose anytime he comes within 100 feet of his property. The neighborhood becomes completely divided, until, through a creative plot twist, the neighborhood haters come around and learn to accept the rooster for who he is. (OK, so the social justice message is kind of obvious, but hey, it was a shitty first draft!)

This was actually inspired by reality. Years ago, I really was awakened by a random rooster who was crowing at 4:00 in the morning. Nobody ever claimed the rooster – my theory is that he was dumped by someone who had previously owned him. One of my neighbors fed him every day (just like the character in the story). Another neighbor tried to kill it with a pellet gun. (I toned it down to “garden hose” for the story.) Still another neighbor actually hired a professional to capture the rooster and take him to Animal Control – and his efforts were completely unsuccessful. The rooster still lives in the alley today. I figured, why not use that for my story?

So. Why am I telling you this?

A week ago, my daughter and I brought home three chickens for us to raise in our urban backyard. She named them Pom-Pom, Cocoa, and Greta. The first egg was laid the next day – and I promptly cooked it up for my daughter to eat. The chickens seemed happy and content in their new home.

The following Monday, my daughter and I came home to a horrific sight. Cocoa was fine. Greta was fine. But we could tell immediately that Pom-Pom was not. I didn’t let my daughter see, but I could tell that Pom-Pom had been pecked to near-death in the head – most likely by the rooster. We took her to the vet (yes, our vet treats chickens!), but the chicken’s injuries were too severe to be treated effectively, and so we decided to have her put down. And for the rest of the day and into the night, I could not stop crying. I was full of self-blame (If I’d penned them up, this would never have happened). I was flooded with the horrific image of mutilated chicken (Poor Pom-Pom!). And I was angry. ANGRY. If I could get my hands on that rooster, I’d fucking kill him! This, coming from someone who values social justice and non-violence.

This certainly wasn’t like the happy little ending in my children’s story. Picture books don’t typically involve things like a sadistic rooster who brutally victimizes a chicken. But, upon closer examination, picture books have some pretty sophisticated messages embedded in them – messages that often reveal the complexities and contradictions of real life. The popular book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Typefor example, teaches children about resisting exploitation in the workplace – even when your employer is a nice farmer. If You Give A Mouse A Cookie (and all of the other “If You Give” books) introduces kids to chaos theory – the idea that seemingly random events have an underlying order. In fact, now that I think about it, the award-winning I Want My Hat Back tells the tale of a lying, thieving rabbit – and a (SPOILER ALERT!!!) murderous bear. This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky childhood. This is gritty, complicated real life.

So this rooster that was ultimately accepted by the neighborhood has turned violent and sadistic. How do you find the good – any kernel of good – in a character that kills a defenseless victim?

Oddly enough, this is where the Westboro Baptist Church comes in.

Fred Phelps, the founder of WBC, died this past week. (If you’re not familiar with Fred Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church, go to their website and see what they’re all about. It won’t take long.) His long-estranged son, Nathan Phelps, issued an official statement after his father’s death – and I was blown away by the integrity in his words. Read below:

“I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”

“I ask this of everyone – let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”

“My father was a man of action, and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.”

If Nathan Phelps can find a kernel of good in his father – a man who inflicted deep, scarring wounds on him (literally and figuratively) and on the LGBTQ community – then I can find a kernel of good in this rooster. He gave me my first story, which led to another, and another, and another – and one of them is coming out in May. He reminded me that I’m not perfect, and that I can learn from life experiences, rather than beating myself up. In an odd, roundabout way, he got me to connect with Nathan Phelps’ words in a way that I might not have had this incident not occurred. He (and Nathan Phelps) got me thinking about what it means to walk my talk, to practice what I preach. And he taught me that chickens need protection. A LOT of protection. (No, the double-entendre isn’t lost on me.)

Oh – I forgot to tell you. On the way to the vet, Pom-Pom laid her last egg.


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2 responses to “The hard lessons of childhood

  1. Lorri Doig

    Maybe a lesson for me : I tend to think bad things often happen to people as a result of inappropriate behavior. ie. People keep telling me that many homeless people become drug addicts out of desperation. They aren’t homeless because they are druggies. Maybe the rooster turned mean as a means of survival. Maybe I need to be more understanding of mean people. I still choose to think Nathan Phelps was a horrible man.

  2. I LOVED this post, Gayle — thank you! – Keith

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