The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck
Writer and illustrator Phelan has taken a true event—the Montgolfier brothers’ first hot air balloon flight in 1783 at Versailles in which three barn animals ascended and survived for fifteen minutes—and anthropomorphized the animals into secret agents fighting injustice. He populates his historical fantasy with actual historical characters: Ben Franklin, Marie Antoinette, hypnotist Franz Mesmer, and slimy villainous Count Cagliostro. Ten-year-old Emile and feisty Sophie join the charming animals, Bernadette the inventive sheep, Jean Luc the steady duck, and daring Pierre the swash-buckling rooster, aka Bête Noire, as they steal the show with their exploits.
The novel is a hybrid of text and graphic-novel pencil illustrations which intensify the fast-paced action scenes. Phelan incorporates spot illustrations, picture book full spreads, and panels. Phelan thinks of his graphic novels as picture books for older readers. This novel is suitable for Grade Three and up and reluctant readers, pairing adventure with offbeat humor, such as when Ben Franklin asks Cagliostro how he looks so young, he replies “Sorcery. Also abstaining from red meat.” This would also be an enjoyable read-aloud for younger readers. Phelan employs simple sentences for a quick read, adding some creative vocabulary such as hallucination, nefarious, collaboration. He grounds the vocabulary in the 18th century with pistols, highwaymen, fencing duels, and charlatans. Suspension of disbelief is a requirement. His re-imagining of history may annoy some history stalwarts and amuse others.