Animal Farm meets The Great Escape – without the heavy political subtext – in Dan Bar-el’s latest novel for middle-graders. The author of Nine Words Max and Not Your Typical Dragon opens with a series of animals responding to an unvoiced question: How would you describe Audrey?
Audrey is, of course, the title character: a cow who, with a little help from her farm friends, manages a daring escape on her way to “Abbott’s War” (a wry play on “abattoir”). But the escape is only half the story. While Audrey imagines a life of freedom and adventure, she’s quickly faced with making her way in a new, sometimes frightening and lonely world.
The narrative jumps from one perspective to another, with a wide cast of characters offering their version of events. These include the farmer and his young daughter, a truck driver, a wildlife officer, and a reporter, plus a barn full of animals – loyal Eddie (sheep dog), stalwart Roy (horse), mastermind Buster (pig), and several eccentric cows. Once Audrey makes her escape, there’s a forest full of wildlife, including a pair of rascally raccoons and a cunning cougar, to continue the tale with their often-quirky perspectives.
The back-and-forth among the characters is over the top, both in its portrayal of the animals’ personalities and old-timey expressions (“jumpin’ June bugs,” for instance), but Bar-el pulls it off with great charm. The result is purely delightful, as are Tatjana Mai-Wyss’s appropriately vintage-looking spot illustrations. The short first-person passages help move the story along, ending with a comedy-of-errors that culminates in Audrey happily living out her days at an animal sanctuary.
Bar-el manages to gently and thoughtfully introduce kids to the concept of the abattoir while also underscoring that a farm’s very purpose is producing food. At its heart, Audrey (Cow) encourages kids to think even as it entertains – the mark of wonderful children’s literature.