Mr. Watson and Mr. Nelson live together in a “big, honking house with a teeny-tiny yard in a big, honking city.” Though Mr. Watson only acquires three chickens, before the couple knows it, there are 456 chickens in their home.
As author Jarrett Dapier's perfectly paced storyline and illustrator Andrea Tsurumi’s colorful, clean-lined artwork show, Mr. Watson’s Chickens take over the house, and the snowball effect of nearly 500 chickens in one small abode is very funny. Tiny chicks stage a play in the breadbox, chickens in bathing suits practice synchronized swimming in the bathtub, and there’s even a musically inclined chicken named Aunt Agnes who belts out a lively song (“Shooby-doo, wonky-pow, bawka-bawka in da chow-chow.”) at all hours. A cross-sectional view in one dynamic spread makes it clear that the home is “teeming with birds.”
Mr. Nelson eventually gives Mr. Watson an ultimatum: Either the chickens go, or he does. The two set off for the county fair to find new homes for the chickens, but chaos ensues when Mr. Watson trips, knocking over the cages and scattering chickens everywhere. Eventually there’s a happy ending for all the birds, especially Aunt Agnes, who finds a place in the spotlight.
Dapier’s prose is full of tenderness and spunk. When Mr. Nelson tells Mr. Watson he might leave, Dapier writes that Mr. Watson knows “his heart would be a broken egg” without Mr. Nelson. Depictions of gay couples are still uncommon in children's literature, particularly in picture books, so the depiction of Mr. Watson and Mr. Nelson's lovingly quirky and (mostly) harmonious relationship is commendable, as is the inclusion of a cheesemonger at the fair who is referred to by a nonbinary pronoun.
Tsurumi’s illustrations playfully extend the story. At the county fair, all chickens but one (Aunt Agnes, of course) are accounted for. The page turn reveals a Where’s Waldo?-esque spread of the fair from an aerial perspective. But good luck spotting Aunt Agnes, as Tsurumi fills the spread with decoy chickens—chicken-shaped balloons, an information kiosk topped with a giant chicken, a person in a chicken costume handing out flyers, even a sand chicken in the sandbox. Choices like these make Mr Watson’s Chickens an enjoyable and exuberant read.
This is one of the year’s most entertaining and bighearted picture books. You might even say it’s in fine feather.