This short and utterly beautiful story is about following one’s dreams and maintaining hope in the face of despair. It is a meditation on family, motherhood, and selfless love. Published in South Korea in 2000, it became a bestseller and a classic of Korean literature. Hwang has written dozens of books and she has received multiple awards for them. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is poignant and gorgeously written, with translation by Chi-Young Kim and illustrations by Japanese artist Nomoco. While this might be considered a child’s story, it is truly a fine piece of literature, reminiscent of Margery Willliams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, all stories that deeply touch the reader no matter their age.
The central character is a hen named Sprout. She spends her days locked within a cage, laying eggs that she never gets to hatch. They roll away from her and into the hands of the farmer’s wife. Sprout, from her confinement, can see just outside into the barnyard where the dog, some ducks, the rooster and his hen-wife walk about freely, eating and enjoying privileges that Sprout has never known. Sprout longs for freedom and to hatch a chick of her own. As she grows sadder and her health deteriorates, she can no longer lay eggs and is no longer useful to the farmer. When he gathers her up with other hens whose days have reached an end, an unusual and unexpected opportunity presents itself. With help and encouragement from a mallard called Straggler, Sprout embarks on a new life journey. It isn’t easy and is frequently downright dangerous, as a predatory weasel is always lurking about, waiting to pounce on Sprout or any other animal that strays too far from safety. Yet Sprout, the sad little hen whom the other barnyard animals scorned and derided, discovers that she has greater perseverance, bravery and love than anyone could have imagined. I was literally on the edge of my seat reading about the little hen’s trials, cheering for her to succeed. In a mere 134 pages, Hwang is able to turn chickens, ducks and weasels into fully realized, compelling actors, with a story that touches on deep philosophical issues relevant to the modern world including the plight of refugees and outsiders, the way we define “family,” and trying to put yourself into the shoes of your enemy.
It was a happy accident that I even found this book. I had never heard of it, but a local bookstore, sadly, was going out of business and I found this gem for twenty-five cents! The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly would make a wonderful gift. If you have kids, read it with them. Share it with your best friend. Do yourself a treat and read it yourself (maybe keep a box of tissues nearby). In the messed up world we inhabit right now, Sprout shows us the value of hope, love and fearlessness.