Fuse #8

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review of the Day: A Room With a Zoo

It appeared on the New York Public Library's 100 Books For Reading and Sharing, but that's not why I read it. I read it because my homeschooler bookgroup wants to discuss it as soon as possible. As it happens, I was much taken with it, in spite of the somewhat bratty narrator. But see for yourself....

A couple months ago a child walked into a library where I was the children's librarian. Softly she asked if we had anything else by the author of "A Room With a Zoo". My library is notorious for getting new books in late, but in this particular case I had seen the title already in a bookstore. I showed her Jules Feiffer's other books, like "The Man In the Ceiling" and "A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears". She looked them over vaguely but they were obviously not what she wanted. What she wanted was another book exactly like, "A Room With a Zoo" and I (not having read it) was hard put to find her something similar. Time has passed, I have read the book, and I STILL cannot for the life of me figure out what I should have told her. Feiffer has deftly tapped into a single child's love for the animals she keeps in such a one-of-a-kind way that animal loving kids out there are sure to find a kindred spirit in the character of Julie. Using everything from slapstick to sweet moments to the reality that comes with owning a variety of different animals, Feiffer is always real, always interesting, and never dull.

Based on Jules Feiffer's real family and real family members (though to what extent I am not certain) the book is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Julie Feiffer. Julie wants one thing in the entire world. A Chihuahua. A cute little doggie that she would tend to and take care of. Her parents insist that she is too young for such a responsibility. So instead she gets a cat named Timmy. But Timmy isn't a sweet cat, he's a frightened one and to make up for him they buy her a hamster named Hammy. Problem is, Hammy tortures Timmy with his edibleness. So to distract Timmy from Hammy they get an Oscar fish named (oh so appropriately) Oscar. That's all well and good until it becomes clear that Oscar likes to eat the other fish purchased with the sole purpose of keeping him company. So she gets a turtle for comfort. Then Julie wants to bring home the class rabbit, she gets a new kitten who is as friendly as Timmy is distant, and all this reaches a screeching climax when fish, hamster, and cats combine to bring the story to a slam bang finish.

I'm intrigued by the reviewer of this book who responded with horror to the fact that Julie makes poor judgments with her animals. They seem to be under the impression that the protagonist in a children's story should always do the right thing and never make mistakes. Julie is nine and some of her addle-headed theories result with a sticky end, but this isn't one of those books where the kid makes a mistake and gets away with it. Each time Julie does something stupid she (and the animals) pay for it. And, by paying for it, learns. To the animals' detriment, of course, but in this story only two critters get eaten and nobody (aside from the eaten) dies. There's a strong sense of reality to this tale, leading me to believe that much of this story must've actually happened to Feiffer & Co. When one of Julie's goldfish is eaten by the Oscar, Feiffer's accompanying illustration of Julie screaming is dead on. I well remember the horror of waking up in the morning, walking over to the fishtank, and seeing half a skeleton of a fish floating at the top of the bowl. "A Room With a Zoo" is hardly so graphic, but it acknowledges right from the get-go that pet ownership is not for the weak. The individual personalities of the pets ring true each and every time. Plus I think that no children's book describes quite so well the agony some adults feel when their backs go out.

There are wonderful little touches spotted throughout the text that make for a great read. When Julie discovers the Oscar fish her parents have bought for her the fish is describes as follows: "His eyes were black like a gangster's, and on top of his eyes there was a bright red line the color of his speckles. `He reminds me of Tony Soprano,' my father said, so he called my fish Tony". The book isn't afraid to do a little shout out once in a while as well. Though it's never mentioned by name, proud parent Jules mentions his daughter Kate Feiffer's new picture book, "Double Pink" at great length. I was amused that he would be so gutsy as to unrepentantly draw attention to his daughter's work in this fashion. Not every daddy would do so much.

It's the truth in this tale that is its strength and its weakness. Some parents will bemoan the fact that Julie is a real little girl and not a perfect-pet-takin'-care-of-machine. She does pretty darn well, all things considered, and some elements of this tale are so real (such as a classmate's family trying to drop a sick rabbit off onto Julie's family) that they could only have been inspired by true life situations. Most importantly, kids really identify with Julie. She's one of them. They understand what she's going through, even when they don't agree with her decisions at all times. It makes for a great story, an amusing tale, and an altogether hepped-up storyline. Bound be beloved for quite some time.

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