Suzy Lee's The Zoo is a picture book in which the words only tell a small part of the story. A young girl visits the zoo, apparently in Korea, with her parents. The text, a few words per page, gives a simple recounting of events. "We visited the aviary, and then the gorillas", etc. But behind the scenes, two parallel adventures occur.
The initial scenes are very detailed, and drawn mostly in shades of gray. The only comes from a peacock, wandering loose about the zoo. The animal cages seem oddly deserted, with the inhabitants not to be found. And then the little girl wanders off, following the peacock into a world of color.
Alternating pages show the increasingly frantic parents, still in gray, looking for their missing daughter. Meanwhile, the daughter plays with the animals, loose in some sort of idyllic forest scene. The scenes with the girl and the animals are clearly not real, but reflect every child's wish-fulfillment. Getting sprayed by an elephant. Sliding down the neck of a giraffe, into the waiting arms of a gorilla. Soaring with the birds. Smiling, playful animals everywhere you look. In the end, the relieved parents find the girl, fast asleep on a bench, dreaming about the animals.
Both sets of illustrations reward close study. The "real world" scenes are pencil sketches in muted colors, with, in a few cases, cut-out paper dolls apparently overlaid on the page. They are filled with realistic details, like the face mask worn by the balloon seller on the first page, and the spilled trash here and there on the ground inside the zoo. The people represent a wide spectrum of humanity, from snooty woman with backpack, to fighting young boys, to coy teenage girls, to parents with cameras, teacher with students, and smiling, pig-nosed sisters. Only our young heroine displays a splash of color in her cheeks.
The animal scenes, by contrast, are awash with color, deceptively crude colored pencil sketches of smiling animals. The trees in the background sometimes look like origami, made from brightly colored paper. The grass and sky bear the marks of heavy scribbling, to fill in the background. There's no strict adherence to the "right colors" either. The elephants are shaded with purple and green. The trees have orange, pink and purple branches. The bear is brown, overlaid with a touch of blue. The colored pages look, in short, like something that a kid (albeit a very talented kid) would draw.
The parallel tales are linked. As the parents run past the empty aviary, their daughter is flying through the sky with the birds. The animals are missing from all of the realistic scenes, as though, just perhaps, they might really be off visiting the girl's imagination.
This is a book for any child who loves animals, and thinks that zoos are paradise. It's also a book for any parent who has temporarily misplaced a child - the parents' fear is palpable (and, happily, relieved by the end of the story). All in all, it's an unexpected and rewarding adventure.
Book: The Zoo
Author: Suzy Lee
Publisher: Kane/Miller Book Publishers
Original Publication Date: March 2007
Age Range: 4-8
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher.
Other Blog Reviews: The Thinking Mother, Book Buds, Fuse #8, and For Immediate Release Reviews
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.