Fuse #8

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Review of the Day: The Zoo

The Zoo written and illustrated by Suzy Lee. Kane/Miller Book Publishers. $15.95

Sometimes I'll hold off on reviewing a book if I feel that it's received enough attention on the other blogs. I'd do the same with this title too if it weren't so doggone amazing. So I apologize if you've heard it all before. If the purpose of this blog is to review the best and brightest, far be it from me to leave someone out.

American publishers, by and large, move with the speed of pure, refined molasses when it comes to introducing U.S. audiences to foreign picture books. Considering the scads of remarkable books available all over the world, it’s a crying shame that more than 95% of what we see on the American picture book market tends to be of the homegrown variety. Don’t expect this situation to get better any time soon either. With cries proclaiming that picture books are no longer profitable, I wouldn’t be any too surprised if publishers decide to play it "safe" for the next few years. Maybe that’s why I like Kane/Miller so much. Far from limiting their scope, they do everything in their power to bring this country some eclectic, fun, and funny titles from a variety of different regions. Take Korea. You may have read a Korean picture book once or twice in your life. I myself am rather fond of, “While We Were Out” Ho Baek Lee (who is South Korean). But while we might be able to rustle up some Korean-American writers, books straight out of that general vicinity are not entirely common. “The Zoo”, by Suzy Lee ends up all the sweeter then as a result. Not only is it a visually stimulating lark but it also happens to be one of the more creative picture books you’re likely to get your hands on this coming season.

A child is going to the zoo with her mom and dad. Sadly, there isn’t much to see in the uniformly empty cages. So as the older members of the family strain to catch even a glimpse of a bear on Bear Hill, the little girl follows a wayward peacock. Immediately the bird leads her to a multi-colored landscape where the child plays gleefully amongst watering holes, long-necked giraffes, and (in a burst of flight) even the sky itself. The parents are in a panic, but soon find their little one sleeping peacefully on one of the zoo’s many benches. Was it real or just a dream? The answer is left to the reader. One thing everyone can agree on though, “I love the zoo. It’s very exciting. Mom and Dad think so too."

The feel of the book took me back to my childhood. I lived during the heyday of foreign language children’s programming, where animated shorts from all over the world would sometimes play on basic cable. Reading “The Zoo” is a similar experience. Everything in the book is easy to understand with a straightforward plot. Yet at the same time, it feels different from the roughly 2 billion based-in-Brooklyn storybooks currently out there. The signs are in Korean. The people are all Korean. The feel of the narrative, scope of the vision, and subject matter (which I doubt any American writer could get away with here) is foreign to our senses.

The cover says it all. You go to the zoo and what do you get a ton of? Empty cages. It’s very interesting, but this book actually requires that you remove the dust jacket to get the whole story. Take off the dust jacket and the empty cage on the cover wraps around to reveal an escaping gorilla on the endpapers making good his escape. Turn to the back of the book and the gorilla is back in his cage tenderly holding a hot pink shoe. The shoe, actually, is a testament to Lee’s playful sense of humor. Sharp-eyed readers will be able to detect the exact moment when the little girl’s shoe falls and into what pair of hands it lands. Better still is the fact that she is not seen wearing a second shoe for half of the book, playing with the sense of what is real and what is make-believe here. Sadly, for all its cleverness and (dare I say) necessity, the cover may turn off potential purchasers. Empty cages that make a point are all well and good, but if a browsing patron isn’t interested in reading the book through they may discount the drab gray packaging too soon.

As for the art, it balances the monochrome blue-gray dreariness of mundane everyday life with the sparkle, color, and flash of the animal kingdom. The first official two page spread shows the family entering the zoo, with the only visible color appearing on the girl’s flushed cheeks and a peacock sitting high above. While the text reads off a seemingly mundane list of places visited, the girl and her peacock friend are easily identifiable by the splotches of bright shades and hues adorning them. You can also spot the girl via the bird-shaped balloon that hangs above her. That balloon goes on a kind of journey of its own, as it happens, and it’s well worth rereading the book to discover where it goes. Lee never drops a single detail, and in the midst of raucous colors, fine drawing, and panache there’s a current of realism beneath it all. When the parents discover that their daughter is missing, distraught doesn’t even cover what they’re feeling. She may be having a wonderful time with the animals, but reflected in the hippo’s watering hole is the face of every parents' deepest fear.

Is it for all parents? Oh lordy begordy, no. Wish it were the case, but you’re undoubtedly going to get a couple here and there that see this book as a story where it’s okay to run away from your parents in a public space. Obviously, every child that reads this book isn’t going to be instantly swept up in the notion of going walkabout on the next family outing would lead to adventure. Still, it’s hard to brush the image of the girls’ parents running as fast as possible through the empty zoo in a blind panic. Personally, I think the book identifies how wonderful freedom feels to a child. You’re forever under someone’s protection. How cool would it be then to transfer that protection to the wild and wacky animals in the zoo? Add in the amazing details, good storytelling, and smart art and there’s very little left to gripe about.

Frankly, I see no reason why a person couldn’t pair this book easily alongside Peggy Rathmann’s, “Goodnight, Gorilla”, for an entirely zoo-oriented bedtime series. There’s a lot of sleeping and animalian mischief going on in both of these titles. “The Zoo” is going to be one of those books that catches on purely through word-of-mouth. As smart and funny as it is, American consumers will need to know about it from a reliable source before giving themselves over to its purchase. Trust me then when I tell you that this one’s a keeper. Subtle without being so understated as to alienate its child readers, this book feels like a silent film where the narrator sits next to you, quietly telling you the story. Rare and wonderful.

Other Blog Reviews of This Title Found At:
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
The Thinking Mother
Book Buds

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