Michelle Worthington (author) and Nicky Johnston (Illustrator)
EK Books: 2023
Reviewed by Viv Young
Mama’s Chickens is an age-appropriate story about early onset dementia that uses one mum’s nurturing relationship with the family’s pet chooks to discuss changes wrought by illness that affect her whole family.
Mama is initially a reluctant chook-parent but soon falls in love with a brood of feathery hens. The text explains that Mum perceives a likeness between the personality of one special chook and her own child. This explicitly expressed connection allows young readers to follow the implicit exploration of how dementia may impact children; as Mama’s memory and behaviour is affected by illness, the text describes what is happening in relation to the chooks (e.g.: she becomes short tempered, forgets names) while the pictures show how the same issues affect Mama’s children. This analogy between child and pet is made particularly poignant and also accessible through the use of the child’s voice in telling the story.
The warm tones in the overall design and artwork for Mama’s Chickens keep the mood of the book joyful and that is the overall message that children can take away—Mama’s love is constant no matter what challenges the family experiences. Nicky Johnston has given Mama’s chickens loads of personality so there is subtle humour in their antics that will intrigue and delight curious kids. There is also a lot of tenderness and empathy in the way Johnston renders Mama’s own experience of her disability and her interactions with her family, both the feathered and human members.
Mama’s Chickens treats a serious topic in just the way children need, touching clearly but gently on the changes Mama and her family are experiencing while keeping the focus on love and joy. The author’s own experience of early onset dementia is clear in every carefully chosen word, making this an exceptionally authentic treatment of an important topic that affects many families. Because Mama’s challenges (fatigue, forgetfulness, irritability) can be symptoms of many illnesses, the story will no doubt be a valuable tool for families experiencing all kinds of different challenges.