Three Little Red Hens
Recent picture-book versions of a well known story where subtle differences appear in the conclusions
Once asked what stories I recalled hearing in my childhood, I half jokingly replied, “I remember my mother reading the story of ‘The Little Red Hen’ over and over again. I think it was her favorite.” “That’s every mother’s favorite story,” my inquisitor replied.
Though it sometimes differs in this or that detail, the unchanging part of the story tells how the Little Red Hen decides to bake a cake (or a loaf of bread) and asks her pals: “Who will help me . . . [plant the wheat, harvest it, mill it, mix it, and bake it]?” On each occasion, her barnyard friends (a dog, a cat, or other critters) repeat the reply “Not I” and the Hen does the chore herself. Then comes the time when the pastry is done and the Hen asks who will help eat it. Of course, the good-for-nothings are eager to share in the treat. But in most versions, the Hen turns these sluggards away with an admonition that since they didn’t help in its preparation, they can’t savor its consumption: “I’ll eat all myself!” the Little Red Hen snaps.
Though most of us are familiar with the phenomenon it encapsulates, it’s interesting what others say this tale is about.
During the Ronald Reagan era, the story was employed by conservatives to teach the dangers of liberal socialism; it was said that if the Little Red Hen was forced to share the fruits of her labor with everyone, she’d lose the incentive to work.
Of course, you could just as easily make the story into a left-wing sermonette about fiscal conservatives: how if you’re unwilling to pay taxes, you really can’t complain about pot holes and poor teachers. Other lessons are suggested in three recent picture-book versions of the story where subtle differences appear in the conclusions.
The vivid artwork and splashing colors of Rebecca and Ed Emberley’s The Red Hen recall the collage style of Eric Carle. And the book would seem to end in the traditional way when a cat, a rat, and a frog eagerly offer to help eat the cake even though they have done nothing to assist in its creation. The last words of the story are: “‘Hmmph!’ said the Red Hen. ‘I think I will eat all myself.’ And she did.” While those are the last words of the story, they aren’t the last words of the book because the volume closes with a recipe for baking a cake. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but I find it significant that the directions begin: “With a grown-up’s help, preheat the oven to . . . .” Doesn’t that make kids into the Little Red Hen and grown-ups into the reluctant helpers?
Jerry Pinkney’s The Little Red Hen recalls his recent Caldecott Award winning book The Lion and the Mouse. Each drawing is incredibly textured and multi-layered. The perspective is wonderfully close. And though comic, the animals are faithfully drawn. Moreover, the miller (where the Hen takes her wheat to be ground) is an African-American in overalls behind whom can be seen tubes of paint, brushes, and a sketch pad–would that be a self portrait, of Pinkney himself? And how does this version end? Not quite with the Hen’s solo joy and peremptory “I will eat all myself” but with a kind of compromise. Pinkney’s heroine does jilt her uncooperative neighbors (a dog, a rat, a goat, a pig), but she shares the cake with her five chicks who encircle her.
My favorite of the season, however, is The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman and comically illustrated by Paul Meisel. Here our barnyard heroine is making Passover matzah and speaks in Yiddish inflected ways–kvetching about her lazy no-goodnik friends (a dog, a sheep, a horse) who don’t help while she’s schlepping flour to the kitchen, and then they have the chutzpah to turn up at her Seder and ask her for matzah? Oy gevalt! But then she remembers the words from the Haggadah (“Let all who are hungry come and eat”) and she invites them in, nonetheless. But after the feast who does the dishes? “Not I,” says the Hen from her easy chair, while in the background we see her guests up to their elbows in dish soap. To my way of thinking, that’s the best ending I’ve encountered to this story.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Parents’ Choice (March 2011).
If you liked this, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium.