Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Chicken Of The Sea' Is So Wacky — Of Course It Was Created By Kids

McSweeney's Publishing

When Ellison Nguyen was 4 years old he got the chance to meet Thi Bui, the illustrator of one of his favorite books. He was so inspired by her work that he promptly wrote and drew his own picture book — "It came to me," Ellison, now 6, explains simply.

Chicken of the Sea tells the story of three farm chickens: Every day they wake up, they lay eggs, they go to sleep ... and then they start the process all over again. They're bored and ready for an adventure, until, one day a rat pirate arrives at the farm ready to enlist the chickens to sail the high seas ("but they're too dumb to be pirates," Ellison says).

The project became a multi-generational collaboration. Ellison's dad, Viet Nguyen (who is also very good at writing books), helped him with the story, and got in touch with Thi Bui to see if she might like to illustrate it. Bui enlisted her son, Hien Bui-Stafford, 13, for the job.

"My mom ... helped me with pointers like the background or like a posture of the character," Hien says. "We usually would work like after school or during the weekends when we had our time together. Really the whole thing looked really bad without my mom."

Bui thinks her son is just being modest.

"I really was intimidated by the idea of illustrating this story because it's way more creative and imaginative than what I normally do, which is non-fiction," Bui says. "So I needed Hien brain, which was like closer to Ellison's brain to give me the raw material to work with and so he did all the line drawings on his own."

Bui says if she had been illustrating this book, she would have probably "overthought" it – doing lots of research about chickens. Her son was able to be more intuitive.

"Hien just thought: chicken," she says. "And then he drew this thing straight out of his imagination and it was spot-on."

/ McSweeney's Publishing
McSweeney's Publishing

Viet Nguyen says he loved working with his son Ellison on the book.

"It affirmed for me something that I think a lot of artists and writers know, which is that it's really crucial for us to try to tap into the playfulness that's inside of us — and the child's capacity to think beyond the conventions that we've absorbed as adults," he says, adding: "So I hope to continue exploiting Ellison in the future."

As for 6-year-old Ellison's review of working with his dad?

"It was great," he says.

When asked what moral he hopes his readers will take away from Chicken of the Sea, Ellison asks for clarification about what a "moral" is. Told that it's an idea people take away after reading a book, he replies: "Nothing."

So why end the book with a party? Simple: "I like happy endings," Ellison says.

/ McSweeney's Publishing
McSweeney's Publishing

Barrie Hardymon edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.