I have good news for you, and I have bad news. I’m going to operate off the assumption that you, like me, would rather hear the worst first, so here’s the bad news: Petook: An Easter Story is out of print and going for something like $60 (minimum) on Amazon. The good news is that there are still copies out there available for less than that (I did not pay $60 for mine), and this book is worth the work of checking Amazon regularly or haunting book sales, garage sales, or Goodwill. Better yet, our library here in town has a copy, so, quick! Race to our library website and put a hold on it now! (Or read on to find out why I’m being so bossy about a book about a chicken.)
To say that Petook is a beautifully written book would be entirely true. But to say that without mentioning Tomie dePaola’s illustrations would be a critical omission: the best bits of this story are not written, but are embedded within the artwork, making Petook an incredibly moving book, unforgettable and lovely to look at.
To explain exactly how this works is a tricky business, because the bulk of the book’s beauty rests in the subtlety with which it tells the story of Easter, and subtlety is hard to pin down. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been more tempted to skip the summary of a story entirely and simply order you to go get a copy, but we’ve already discussed the difficulty of doing exactly that (see above), so I’ll have to take a stab at it.
Petook is a story with a foreground and a background. In the foreground is Petook (a rooster), his mate, Martha, and their chicks. Petook doesn’t do anything terribly exciting, really, but Houselander’s telling of his story stands alone so beautifully that it’s tempting miss the drama unfolding behind the rooster, where dePaola draws out the events of Holy Week so quietly that they nearly slipped past me during my first reading of Petook.
As Petook passes an uneasy night or anticipates the hatching of his newest chicks, tiny figures in the background of the paintings show Jesus and his disciples in the Garden of Gethsamene, with a line of soldiers marching toward them, or depict the tomb, shut up and under guard. As Petook stretches his wings restlessly, there on the hilltop behind him stand three crosses in silhouette. Petook responds to these events with the rest of Creation, grieving when Jesus is crucified, rejoicing when he rises again. At points, his story touches that of Christ (you’ll know them when you see them).
Petook is a modest tale at first glance, but it deepens with each reading, thanks to dePaola’s unusual approach. It has become one of our favorite Easter stories, and tends to be the first to emerge from the attic each year and the last one to retire. If you’re able to get your hands on a copy, do! If not, keep your eyes open; be patient. Petook is a book worth hunting for.
Petook: An Easter Story
Caryll Houselander, Tomie de Paola (1988)