The four fuzzy little chicks Doreen Cronin introduced in 2011’s The Trouble with Chickens, the first of her J.J. Tully Mysteries, now have their own series. S&S/Atheneum launches The Chicken Squad in April with The First Misadventure, in which the plucky chicks – with some guidance from retired search-and-rescue dog-turned-detective J.J. Tully – prepare to do battle with what they erroneously assume is a UFO. Like the original series, The Chicken Squad, which continues in September with The Next Misadventure, is illustrated by Kevin Cornell.
Geared toward readers ages seven to 10, a slightly younger audience than the J.J. Tully Mysteries (which are published by HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), Cronin’s new paper-over-board chapter book series came about quite organically, as she knows the protagonists very well. “I have two brothers and a sister, and these annoying little chicks are us,” the author explained. “We spent a lot of time as kids playing by ourselves in our backyard, like the chickens. I love spending time with these little chicks – it’s so easy to exaggerate their personalities and make them ridiculous. I decided I wanted to send them out there in a new series and see what they do.”
The author of numerous picture books, including the Click Clack series, which has sold more than 2.5 million copies, Cronin said that she’d been thinking of writing an early chapter book series for some time. “Since The Trouble with Chickens came out, I’ve heard from a lot of teachers and parents that more books are needed for kids who are past the picture-book stage, but are not quite ready for full-on-chapter books,” she said. “I thought it would be fun to focus on [the chicks] in a series for that age group.”
Shifting the narrative voice from J.J. Tully’s to the chickens’ wasn’t a difficult task for Cronin. “Their voices began as a whisper, and kept getting louder,” she said. “J.J.’s is very much my father’s voice. The chicks are more my voice, and of course my siblings’ voices – but that’s more or less the same voice, with different perspectives. Writing the new series was a bit easier than the first, because the chickens already existed. I always hit a wall when I’m writing a book, and I know I just have to keep going and get past it. But that wall is always harder when I’m trying to create new personalities, which wasn’t the case here.”
Caitlyn Dlouhy, Atheneum v-p and editorial director, is an ardent fan of the chicks, whom she describes as “no mere puffs of fluff – they’re so silly yet so unpretentiously wise,” and she’s pleased to welcome them to her list. “I’ve been Doreen’s editor here since 2005, and have worked with her on a lot of picture books,” she said. “We always wanted to work on something a little older together, and when she threw out the idea of giving the chicks their own story, and aim it at early chapter book readers, I loved it. And when you laugh out loud 17 times reading a 20-page manuscript, you know you must publish it.”
Cronin and Cornell, Dlouhy continued, are well suited as collaborators. “Doreen leaves room for Kevin to take things one step further, and never feels the need to over-explain,” she said. “He picks up on the nuances for each chicken’s personality. I feel as though there’s unwritten messaging that goes on between this author and illustrator.”
Cronin appreciates Cornell’s vision, calling his illustrations for The Chicken Squad “just right. There’s a whimsical but also a snarky quality to these chickens, and Kevin can easily walk both sides. He knew not to make these cute baby chickens that you’d find in a picture book, or an Easter basket.” The author also emphasized the critical role illustrations play in early chapter books. “Readers at this age level are still in the zone where it’s the art that is going to grab their attention,” she said. “I can only do so much with the words, and the story is not complete without the art. It takes two voices.”
Cronin is promoting The First Misadventure, which has a 60,000-copy first printing, on a four-city tour that kicks off at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 12.
Asked whether J.J. Tully resents being relegated to the sidelines in The Chicken Squad, the author replied, “No. He’s tired. I think he has settled into his role as protector of the chickens, and he can now be more of a grandfather than a father figure. Now he doesn’t have to get down and dirty, and can enjoy the chaos a bit!”
The Chicken Squad: The First Misadventure. Doreen Cronin, illus. by Kevin Cornell. Atheneum, $12.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-4424-9676-7