How many of you check out the bookshelves when you go over to other people’s houses? Our friends the Hambrechts’ bookshelves are overflowing! They love to read and they love to share their favorite books—they’ve gifted Junior with everything from a Pecos Bill compendium to D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths. When I heard that Kate disliked Put Me in the Zoo so much that she threw it across the room, I had to know more. . . so I asked her to write a guest post.
When I read a few pages of Put Me in the Zoo to my boy at age three (he's now almost seven), I remember it enraging me to the point that I actually threw it. My friend Jane asked me to explain why. So, at the risk of seeming completely humorless and sour, here is my timely and unduly snarky takedown of an apparently beloved 1960 children's book...
Looking at the book now, I can see that it has endured because Lopshire was a gifted visual storyteller. Much of the plot is moved along by the pictures, which are funny and charming. At the beginning of the book, a tame leopard-type animal (who speaks English) visits the zoo and, seeing how animals are manicured, trimmed, and fed, decides that is the life. Lopshire here draws the leopard with his tongue sticking out, seeming to indicate that the cat is either a fool or possibly crazy. At the zoo, two kids become interested in the leopard and follow him--which is not mentioned in the text, only drawn. He gets thrown out when he announces to a couple of zookeepers that he would like to be caged up. So far, so good.
Then comes page 13: In response to the leopard saying "Why did they put me out? I should be in. I want to stay," the kids say, "Why should they put you in a zoo? What good are you? What can you do?" [Kate throws book.]
What is this? Is this a fiendish mind game the kids are playing, stoking the leopard's misguided desire so that they can them lead him on a journey into the zoo, where he will, to his horror, discover that it is a jail he can never escape from? Are they master students of humanish-leopard nature who have, just by observing him for a few minutes, discerned that he is a textbook masochist, and it would be a fun afternoon activity to casually slip into the sadist role as they eat their popcorn?
Well, no. [Spoiler alert.] After a frankly way-too-long 42 pages of the leopard proving his worth to the kids by changing the very nature of physical reality itself--among other things, he can remove his spots and make them fall from the sky like rain--the kids tell him he belongs in a circus. Then on the last page, he is in a circus, and the kids are apparently managing him.
Where to begin with this...okay, so once you get past the purely instructive picture books (this is a box, this is a bus), picture books broadly fall into a few categories:
- Dreamy wonder books (look at this snowy day! How magical is your world!) [The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats].
- Playful nonsense books (millions of monkeys drumming on drums! How great would that be!) [Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, by Al Perkins and Eric Gurney].
- Books with practical messages (sometimes one parent doesn't understand what you're saying, so try the other one and you can get your stuffed bunny back! How comforting would that be!) [Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems].
Put Me In the Zoo has a nice playful-nonsense section, and maybe the psychedelic dot stuff should just be its own book (at 25 pages, maybe). But it also has the message, If someone doesn't appreciate your talents, you can find a place where you will be appreciated. Sure, who would argue with that?
It's the other message I can't get over: You should just listen to the words that people/leopards say and NOT use your empathy, emotions, or conscience and tell them when something they want is glaringly stupid. If someone says to you, "I've opened up this lemonade stand to raise money so I can buy some uranium-235," your response, following the principle of this book, shouldn't be, "What makes you think you're smart enough to know how to secure radioactive material? You're not even clever enough to know this is a terrible location for your stand." Plain and simple, a thoughtful person's response to another's wish for something that would do them harm should be, "That's a terrible idea!”
I think a child can understand that, and if they can't it's our job to teach them to. Forty-two pages is a painfully long time for the kids to entertain his stupid, stupid dream. So long that you don't feel like you're in the expert hands of an author who is taking you on a little journey of learning. It's more like the feeling you get watching a TLC show--that you are having your time wasted and could find something better to do. So excuse me while I go wish my freckles off my body and use them to re-create the Milky Way on my ceiling.
Kate Hambrecht is an editor living in Jersey City.
I welcome guest posts! If you're interested in writing a post, let me know!