A diligent hen works on her own – and then whips a mischievous rooster and mouse into bread-baking shape – in a new edition of Mary Finch’s retelling of The Little Red Hen, due from Barefoot Books in October. The publisher originally released the story in 1999 as The Little Red Hen and the Ear of Wheat, with art by Elisabeth Bell. This new version features collage art by Kate Slater and an accompanying audio CD of actress Debra Messing (Will and Grace) reading the story. The book will be published simultaneously in the U.S. and the UK.

“When we first published Mary Finch’s retelling of this story, it proved to be a popular seller, and I felt the text was pitch perfect,” said Tessa Strickland, Barefoot’s Oxford, England-based co-founder and editor-in-chief. “One of the features I particularly like about Mary’s version is its resolution. Rather than ending with the hen eating the bread she has made, leaving the mouse and rooster disconsolate, Mary takes the story further, giving them a chance to pull themselves together and help out.”

The decision to re-illustrate the story for the new edition with Slater’s photographed collages was inspired by this century’s innovations in picture-book art. “Illustration trends had moved a long way since 1999,” said Strickland. “By 2012, it felt time to commission an artist with a different style and to give the story a new lease of life. I think Kate Slater’s work is extraordinary – I have never seen anything quite like it. Her technique gives her work a depth as well as a freshness that is unique.”

Slater lives and works on a dairy farm in Staffordshire, England, where her studio is in a former storage room for apples. She both wrote and illustrated her first book, Magpie’s Treasure, and has also illustrated books by other authors, including James Dunn’s ABC London.

To create the art for The Little Red Hen, she drew from her past – and her playful imagination. “Being a farmer’s daughter myself, I think I brought a lot from my own childhood surroundings to the illustrations,” she said. “The hen’s kitchen curtains and plates are just like those in my parents’ farmhouse! Of course, there was a lot of room for interpretation, since the text doesn’t reveal much about the personalities of the rooster and the mouse. I loved coming up with silly things for them to be doing while the hen works, so it wasn’t difficult to put my own twist on the story through the illustrations.”

Creating the collages that are the basis for The Little Red Hen’s innovative illustrations, which have a 3-D feel, involved a multi-step process. Slater used magazines, old envelopes, paper bags, wallpaper, and painted paper to piece together the collages.

“They’re like tiny theater sets,” she said. “I collaged all the different parts and then assembled them, either by gluing little stacks of cardboard between the different pieces, or by hanging them on thin wires from a framework above the background artwork. Everything was stuck to the wall or to a wooden board contraption I’d made. Then I photographed the finished piece and tweaked it slightly in Photoshop to remove any wires or stray bits of paper and glue.”

Giving New Voice to a Classic

Strickland noted that Barefoot has been packaging CDs with picture books since the 1990s, and that this component has become very popular. She emphasized that sound quality is a high priority when creating the CDs, including that for The Little Red Hen. “We’ve found over the years that having first-class narrators pays dividends,” she said. “When my children were little, I was very disappointed by the poor quality of a lot of audio on the market for kids, so I’ve always been willing to hunt out the best artists, like Debra Messing, to do our voiceover work. We already knew Debra, as she had been in touch to say how much she enjoyed sharing our books with her son, so she was an obvious choice for this CD.”

Messing, who also recorded the CD accompanying The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales, a September title, was “thrilled” when the publisher contacted her to record the CDs. “I have been an avid fan of Barefoot since I discovered their beautiful books when my son Roman, now nine, was little,” she said.

The actress happily stepped up to the task of bringing these picture books to life in audio. “I think every story has its own tone and cadence,” she said. “My job as the reader is to tell the story as clearly as possible, and to use the descriptive language for more specific coloring. And of course, I imagined I was reading to kids, so that affected my voice quality as well. Being an actor is fundamentally being a storyteller. All our skills are used to bring a character to life. Hopefully my vocal performance on these CDs provides a full experience for listeners.”

And does Messing feel as though years of reading to Roman made her more comfortable recording these CDs? “Absolutely,” she responded. “Reading aloud to my son remains, to this day, one of my greatest joys. And it’s only become more challenging and fulfilling. Reading Harry Potter out loud? Heaven!”

The Little Red Hen by Mary Finch, illus. by Kate Slater, narrated by Debra Messing. Barefoot Books, $16.99 book and CD Oct. ISBN 978-1-84686-575-6; paperback book and CD $9.99 ISBN 978-1-84686-751-4; paperback only $7.99 ISBN 978-1-78285-041-0