By Jennifer Schneider
In Henny Penny (also known as Chicken Little), the protagonist (a chicken) fears the sky is falling. The folktale’s take-aways are many (also, sometimes confusing if not conflicting threads of advice). Lessons cycle through reminders to, in part, not incite panic. And to not believe all one is told. Especially, don’t fall for associated hype. Another—to be brave and demonstrate courage. Even if and/or when the sky is believed to be falling. “Chicken” never a desired refrain. Choice often denied.
The story of Henny Penny was a childhood favorite. Both mine and then my offspring. None of us vegetarians, for reasons I can’t fully explain. The folktale was a read that persisted over time. Of dogeared corners. And hardback dollar-store kinds. I recall reading the tale aloud before bed and while waiting for nurses to call names for check-ups, mostly routine. We read the story in cars before nursery school-drop offs. On laps in shopping carts. Squeaky wheels. Overstock roundups.
“Will the sky really fall, Mama,” my youngest would ask. Brown eyes wide.
“Of course not, silly,” I’d reply then tousle his curls. Fear less easy to deny.
P.D. Eastman’s (a protégé and colleague of Dr. Suess) Have You Seen My Mother? was another favorite tale. A frequent companion at bedtime, snack time, and during times that ailed.
My youngest would beg for me to read the book. His desire as predictable as the teach me to tell time owl (plastic, now theirs / first mine) alarm and the Thomas the Train whistle.
He’d ask as routinely as the book’s predictable tell. The outcome aligned with our what-will-happen-next reading pantomime.
Unlike Chicken Little, I never fully understood the allure of Suess or Eastman. Always preferred literary quests to quirky rhymes. Have You Seen My Mother? a quest not mine. Yet, I recognized the desire was not unique to our home. Others too would conspire. Somehow. Somewhat. The tale inspired. The publisher (Random House) engaged with all senses. Its staff knew the appeal was less random (roll of the dice) and more predictable (just like mice).
Both books were as common a sighting on literary endcaps and schoolroom shelves as crayons and monkeys named George and dogs named Clifford or Sludge (Nate the Great another favored series). Detective adventures. Mishaps and mysteries. Nests no longer at rest. Home to hatches and persistent scratches. The uncanny allure of relatable histories.
We’d take our time with all pages. My youngest’s brown eyes would remain locked on illustrations. The hatchling a relatable offspring. I’d read with care. Slowly, enunciating each syllable until all plot lines were bare. Pacing was predictable. Also, a sell. As the fear of loss increased my son’s eyes would well. His lashes his first tell. They’d quiver as his palm linked with mine. He could imagine no version of a world without a mother. No motherless tale that could end well.
Even so, he wished to continue to read. Like with Henny Penny there are morals to be gained. Animal friends to be named. Insights all the same. We read in (and of) pairs. Snorts and retorts. Giraffes and whales. Animals with (and without) tails. Only once the two (hatchling and mama) were reunited would my son exhale. A big breath. A long release. Pent up tears. Like a river that longed to be a nursery fairy tale. To flow freely off tongues with gentle rhymes.
I might not have understood the appeal, but I knew to listen and to respect his desire for the story to unpeel. I also knew to not, like in Henny Penny, incite worry or fear. I realize, now, that he knew where I was all along as he sat on my lap and listened his eyes tracked the chicken with a soft cluck. The story gave him a safe space to explore. To test. To try. To cry. All while never leaving a spot secure.
Now, as news cycles spiral, and fears are unparalleled, I can’t say when the world as we know (for some, wish) it might end. Perhaps it already has. I know, though, that I long to preserve the pleasures and freedoms we have.
“The pen is mightier than the sword,” novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said. First in 1839. No longer his time. He too now passed but his advice paves a path well led.
None of us is capable of predicting the future. Each of us able to document and declare. The present and presence of mind. In spiral notebooks. Phone apps. Web browsers. Election fraud denial. Wars abroad. Discontent at home. Like Henny Penny, I can’t predict what may come. Like the hatchling, sometimes we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.
As we enter a new year, I pledge. To feed all birds—red robins and blue jays—that visit my ledge. I’ll also look to writing as a constant—a source of grounding to be present and centered for myself, my students, and my offspring. So that whatever my children and the world might bring, I’ll write to remember the present as I know it. To write is a gift to myself—to more deeply appreciate. And to prepare for the future. Come what may, we anticipate.
My children are no longer toddlers. Their reading interests more refined. Also, less transparent. It’s harder to gauge reactions and interests when the phone and the Kindle house most book spines. I know, though, that their fears persist (if not proliferate) and remain meshed with mine.
A recent news report highlighted the teenagers’ present reality. Not surprisingly (and sadly), every high schooler surveyed had imagined themselves in a vulnerable situation. Tracking exits in high schools. Checking backdoors at concerts. Jumping at fireworks.
Bigger versions of Henny Penny chunked in daily doses. The sky might not be falling, but gunshots continue to rain. Hatchlings seek mothers. Mothers cry for children. Too often in vain.
As my children grew, their story preferences changed. Trends and library lending (re)cycled. Morals and lessons mingled. Auto-reply author emails dinged. They continued to send both signals and queries. Remained thirsty for stories. With time, I realized many of their favorite stories offered soft climaxes. Mostly spaces to create and imagine. Settings in perpetual states of redesign. Curiosity blanketed with compassion. Worlds like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Brave (and series) and Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats. Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. So many more.
Queries and curiosities. Fears and fantasies. Books and bindings. Conflict and compassion. The word is indeed mightier than the pen. Ink that stinks of fears in training. Ready for discussing. Desperately seeking soft landings.
I don’t care which came first—either chicken or egg, I’m glad for the stories of Henny Penny, the hatchling, and more. Come what may. Compassion is the way. Yes—it’s cliché. Stories and writing (both hand-inked and typed) are one foolproof way to resist panic and hype.
Jennifer Schneider is a mother of four and a community college educator. She lives, works, and writes in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. She’s a fan of rhymes, childhood classics, and underdogs.
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