I don’t remember anyone reading me children’s book when I was a young girl. I’m sure someone must have, but, in my home, my father was too busy earning a living and since I was the oldest of five, my mother was too busy tending to my sister, Gail, who was three years younger than me, then my brother, Chuck, who was one year younger than her. I do remember helping Mom out a lot by sitting in the big rocker in front of our little TV and holding Chuck while he sucked on a bottle filled with milk, so I guess my “children’s books” came in the form of Looney Toons blaring at me from the set.
I was already in Catholic school when I encountered books, and most of those dealt with the life of little Jesus; however, I do remember one I can call my favorite that caught my eye in the library of St. Mary’s Elementary School when I was about nine or ten. It was called Chanticleer and the Fox and had the most gorgeous rooster on the cover of what looked like an “old timey” book. He was beautiful: all gold, black and red.
When I asked my third grade teacher, Sister Mary Margaret, how to pronounce the rooster’s name, she told me, and further explained how the story came about. She said that long, long ago a story-teller, or bard, by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote The Canterbury Tales, a story about some people in England who traveled together to go visit St. Thomas a Becket’s shrine a long way away. To pass the time they told stories. This one, Chanticleer and the Fox, was told by a priest. That’s all I needed to get me interested, so I told her I wanted to check it out from the library. She further told me there would be some words in it I wouldn’t know, so I checked out a dictionary, too, and took them both home. There were, indeed, many words I hadn’t heard of before, but I knew all the chicken terms, and the word “rafter,” because my dad would talk about it in his business, and I knew the word harmony, because the nun’s taught us a music class where we learned to sing hymns in Latin for Mass. Other than that, the plot is pretty formulaic: pretty, innocent birds minding their own business; one hen of seven the prettiest, trusted most by the rooster; rooster’s foreboding dream warning him of danger; rooster trusting prettiest hen who says don’t worry; wily fox getting rooster by flattery anyway; and wily rooster managing to escape. I didn’t care, because I didn’t know the plot was boringly formulaic back then.
I loved this little book because it was like no other children’s book I saw in the library. That made it unique, like me, I thought, which made it all mine. Plus, it was about people from a foreign country, which made me feel like I was learning about other people in the world. As well, it was about chickens, which I already knew something about, since my dad had hens in cages in the garage laying eggs I was responsible for collecting. Finally, it was told by a priest, which, at that time, spoke to my one dream in life, which was to become a Dominican Nun. So, naturally, I idolized priests. Oh what growing old enough to live in these wiser times teaches us about innocence and naivety.
Aside from my pride in “owning” the book, and the religious connections to it, I loved Barbara Cooney’s illustrations. The colors were so vibrant but at the same time soothing, somehow. Too, the animal characters spoke, which I later learned meant this little book was a fable. I know Sister Mary Margaret would have told me the moral of the story was don’t give in to flattery, the sin of pride, but I learned in high school Chaucer had a far different moral in mind.
In my senior English class we read Geoffrey Chaucer’s framed tale entitled The Canterbury Tales. A framed tale means you have one overriding story that includes many other, smaller ones. These smaller stories are told by the faithful traveling together on an annual pilgrimage to St. Thomas a Becket’s shrine in Kent, England. They agree to tell these stories, yes, to pass the time, but to compete for the best story, so they can win free dinners at an inn when they return. The Nun’s Priest Tale is one of these stories, and it is called Chanticleer and the Fox. Now, on the journey, it’s important to note that the priest telling this story is an attendant to a nun, who, in turn, is an attendant to the prioress (head) of a nunnery (convent). So, this priest, therefore, is not only subordinate to one woman, but to two, about which Chaucer has his male characters along the journey make fun of the priest. By supposition, then, it becomes clear that the true moral of the fable, Chanticleer and the Fox, is don’t trust women. It’s the only way the priest feels he can save face and take jabs at the nun and prioress at the same time.
I can see Street-Talk Walt tell a story like this just to get back at All-the-Same Jayne. Today, we can’t let such gender belittling go on for either our girls or our boys . We can use BeakSpeak to start a dialogue that would put aside egos, defeat bullies, and bring both young men and women together as equals.