In this read-alike for Charlotte’s Web––perfect for vegetarians, animal lovers, and kids with a penchant for soft-hearted stories––Audrey the Charolais decides to escape her fate as a meat cow, enlisting the help of a host of farm and forest animals along the way.
Writers will be intrigued by the non-traditional narrative style. Audrey (cow) is told through transcripts of interviews with the animals and humans Audrey encounters throughout her journey. The novel has the feel of a documentary and the sweetness of a picture book.
Let’s dive in to Audrey (cow). Here are three things the book can teach us about writing kidlit.
1. Small journeys can be epic, too.
Audrey’s escape takes place in a physically small world. For much of the book, we’re on a farm, or in a small section of forest. But as in Charlotte’s Web, the stakes are high: Audrey knows that a trip to “Abbott’s War”––the animals’ humorous misinterpretation of “abattoir”––will mean the end of her life. When she pulls off the first part of her escape, suddenly a little clearing in the forest feels like the big, wild world. We’re experiencing reality as Audrey does. Just finding a small meadow to graze in is an absolute victory, and a joy.
2. Narrative novelty reaps rewards––and risks.
The eccentric voices telling this story––from a lonely but noble skunk, to an egocentric rooster, to a naive, enthusiastic young deer––add so much to Audrey’s tale. The narrative style brings us closer to a variety of characters, offers a big dose of humor, and creates a patchwork of dramatic irony that Bar-el couldn’t offer us with a more traditional point of view.
Yet this offbeat POV also has its drawbacks. It’s clear that Bar-el is a master at crafting different voices for each of his animal and human characters, and it’s fun to watch him at work. Still, this voice overload can prove distracting. It was much more difficult for me to get into the rhythm of the story while navigating the switches in perspective and tone, sometimes even multiple times on one page. It wasn’t until halfway through the book that I got into the “swing” I normally feel within a few chapters.
Even so, by the end, I was sold. Bar-el and his chatty cast of characters won me over––though I was left wondering if we needed so many different voices to achieve this effect.
Important note: A teacher, parent, or librarian with serious read-aloud talent would have a field day with Audrey (cow). If you’ve got a gift for funny voices and a kid to read to, go out and buy this book NOW.
3. Kids get the deep stuff.
There’s a lot going on in Audrey’s story: death, grief, fear, loneliness, friendship, moral quandaries. Bar-el doesn’t shy away from lush descriptive language and a poetic, often philosophical timbre. Audrey is a dreamer, and he tells the story accordingly. He also adds a layer of humor that may appeal more to adults than children: the rooster refers to himself as a deus ex machina, and sheep who have come to Audrey’s aid stop abruptly because they haven’t reached consensus on some details of their plan. By jumping into the deep end with some pretty advanced themes, Bar-el shows his respect for his kid readers, and wins their confidence in return.
Tatjana Mai-Wyss’s gorgeous illustrations add visual interest and some important cues for emerging readers. And Bar-el’s high-powered, philosophical prose provides something we can all ponder as we relish Audrey’s sweet tale.
Want to chat about Audrey (cow)? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.