The Trouble with Zoos

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C.Stead
illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Amos McGee is a zoo-keeper who has a lot to do but ‘he always made time to visit his friends’. His friends are a chess-playing elephant, a tortoise who loves to race, a shy penguin, a rhinoceros with a runny nose, and an owl who is afraid of the dark. When he takes a day off sick the animals leave the zoo, take a bus and visit Amos at his home. The elephant enjoys a game of chess, the tortoise plays hide and seek, the penguin sits quietly and keeps Amos’s feet warm and the owl makes a pot of tea and reads a book.

This book won the 2011 Caldecott and has numerous glowing reviews.

But there is a problem…and here, in a review by Elizabeth Bird for the School Library Journal is why, she writes:

Look at this cover and then stare deep into that elephant’s eyes. 
There are layers to that elephant. That elephant has seen things in its day and 
has come out the wiser for it. It could tell you stories that would curl your hair
or make you laugh till it hurt. That’s what I see when I look at a Stead animal. 
I see a creature that has had a rich full life, and all because of how she has chosen 
to put pencil/woodblock to paper.

Expert readers have no problems identifying the fiction, or make believe, of the animals in this story but for young readers this causes confusion. Do they see the same as Elizabeth Bird – a happy elephant who has had a rich full life? Chess playing elephants are not real and animals who are free to leave the zoo at any time are not real either. Is this book a gentle story of friendship or one that takes anthropomorphism too far? Nikolajeva in her book “Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature” discusses anthropomorphism  and the risk of offering false knowledge of the animal world. Parents will engage with this book and see the animals as fiction. Young children may not and that is the problem. People can wax lyrical about the conservation efforts of zoos but most, if not all, are there to make money. The zoo can be in a shopping mall or at the back of someone’s house. Using it as as setting for a story about friendship is not great and therefore I’m afraid A Sick Day for Amos McGee is not a kind book.

Sloth Slept On by Frann Preston-Gannon

When children find a creature fast asleep in their garden they wonder what he is doing. So, with lots of questions they set off to find some answers.

There are some clues they fail to spot, notably Dad’s newspaper which has ‘Zoo Breakout!’ as front page news. The children try to find pictures of the creature in books about the ocean, desert and rainforest and come up with some theories of him being an alien or even a pirate until little brother loudly announces that he has found out what the animal is – it is a sloth!

Children look at books about the environment

So, here is my first problem the reader already know this because the title is a massive SPOILER ALERT! Wouldn’t it have been fun to ask the children to guess and also to use this book to see if they could also examine characteristics and features to find the names of other animals? Anyway, the children find out lots of interesting facts about sloths. One very important fact is that “The rainforest has all the things that a sloth likes to eat best, such as leaves, fruit, twigs and even bugs!” Written facts about slothsSo, the children decide to mail him back to the rainforest.Children pack Sloth into a box

When the sloth finally wakes up, he asks the other rainforest animals, “Which way is the zoo’?

Frann Preston-Gannon won The Sandak Fellowship and her picture book The Journey Home is terrific so I am very sad to find this book so flawed. The children find out the rainforest is the perfect home for sloth so why, upon waking, does sloth want to go back to the zoo? Does he have Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe. This ideas in this book had so much potential and there were several possibilities to end this book with sloth liking his new home –  which is also a useful theme when working with third-culture children. Never mind, I still look forward to seeing more from the very talented Frann Preston-Gannon.

Daisy and the Trouble with Zoos by Kes Gray
illustrated by Garry Parsons (cover illustration by Nick Sharratt)

The blurb: Daisy loves surprises! Especially special birthday surprises – like a trip to the zoo! Who’d have guessed a rhino could do so much wee all in one go! Who’d have imagined an elephant tooth was that heavy! Trouble is, the biggest surprise is yet to come.

All the Daisy books are super popular in my library. Last year, I couldn’t keep them on the shelves and Grade 2 were the biggest fans.  I held onto Daisy and the Trouble with Zoos just to see read ‘her’ opinion of zoos. There is a special inscription to Colchester Zoo so I assume this is where Kes Gray found some inspiration.

Here is a Daisy-ism about lions:

The trouble with lions is they lion down too much.  At least zoo lions do. You can watch monkeys for ages because they never stop swinging around or climbing on tyres or scratching their bottoms. But lions don’t have any ropes or tyres to play with. All they have is about two rocks.

They always look really puffed out though. Except you can never tell why. Telly lions are always racing after zebras and stuff, which would definitely puff you out because zebras are really fast runners. But zoo lions never seem to do anything. Apart from twitch their tails. If you ask me, all zoo lions seem to do is lion down all the time and blink a lot.

And they’ve got flies on their face. Me and Gabby counted thirteen flies on daddy lion’s face…

Daisy is a very funny character and she is obviously a big hit with my students. She has an ‘inquiring mind’ and hopefully encourages children to question what they see. Why shouldn’t a whale be kept in a zoo and why are zoo bins always overflowing with rubbish? I laughed aloud at her plight with the zoo adoption scheme. A great twist in the story.


Mog at the Zoo by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pieńkowski

I have always loved Meg and Mog stories. Meg is such an inspiration – her spells always go wrong but she keeps trying until she gets a result that whilst surprising makes everyone happy.

I read Mog at the Zoo on Halloween to a class of 3 and 4 year olds. They love the bright pictures and the bold simple text. They find the stories funny. The are not the easiest books to read aloud but the cartoon versions are excellent and all true to the book so take a look at those too.

In Mog at the Zoo, Mog the cat is mistaken for an escaped tiger. The zoo keepers do their best to catch him whilst the crocodiles cheer ‘GO! GO! GO!’ and the caged tigers shout ‘GRRREAT‘ and ‘BRRRILLIANT‘.

I asked the children “Why do the animals want Mog to escape?” and “What do you think the animals in the cages are thinking?”.

The cages are tiny.  Pandas, monkeys and an elephant, and finally Mog are stuffed inside. Meg casts a spell and in a flash Mog has put herself inside the cage but Mog at least, is out.

She tries another spell and this time she and all the animals are freed. The children loved this bit and named all the animals eating breakfast with Meg and Mog. Highly recommended and if you want an inspiring story about how creative a person can be, even in a motorway service cafe, read Helen Nicoll’s obituary. She was a very interesting person and even contributed to the success of Harry Potter. Jan Pieńkowski is still creating and his website is here.

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Harnett and illustrated by Jonathan McNaught

Oh, what a good book this is. Intelligent, interesting, exciting and very well written. I fell in love with Sonya Harnett’s writing when I finally read Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf. Shortlisted in 2012 for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, The Midnight Zoo is a great book for good readers from Grades 4 up. It is literary fiction, which is not always easy to find for children, and this would be a good contender for Battle of the Books. All credit to the magnificent illustrations by Jonathan McNaught.

The story is about two Romany boys and their baby sister who witness their family and friends being rounded up by Nazi soldiers. Forced to survive by themselves they escape into the wood and find a zoological gardens on the edge of a town. Inside its cages are a wolf, bear, lioness, chamois, eagle, boar, kangaroo and swimming in a dirty pool is a seal. When the boys find out the animals can talk the younger boy, Tomas is not surprised as “Locked in cages with nothing better to do, how could they help but learn the language of the zoo’s visitors.”

“Someone built it because they wanted to show how much money they had, or because they liked animals, or wanted to keep them prisoner.” (43)

The animals have been abandoned, they are starving and have only rainwater to drink. The boys, afraid at first, do their best to share their food. In return, the animals tell the boys their stories. They speak fondly of Alice, the zookeeper’s daughter who has left the zoo to join the resistance. Alice felt that

“The zoo was not the marvellous place she’s always believed it to be. She detested the visitors who talked so brassily, who laughed at the animals and poked fingers at them. She despised the visitors’ ignorance of the nature of living things. More painfully, she came to feel it was wrong to keep living creatures in cages. “This is hell for them!” she cried. “I hate this zoo! I’m ashamed of it!” (72)

“I would free you if I could,” she told the beasts that lay listening to her.

The zoo keeper is persuaded to ‘gift’ a lion and three lion cubs to the ‘leader’ to pacify him after Alice and the resistance blow up a train but he doesn’t return from the journey and the village is bombed. Andrej asks “Why? If the Leader has the lions, why is the village destroyed?” The wolf replies that lions, even a whole pride could not console the leader “Only revenge could do that. Revenge, and the teaching of a lesson to any other village that was thinking about resisting the invasion.” (90)

“They smell the same,” the lioness murmured. “My cubs smelt as she does. Like pollen.” (175)

The animals are the voice of reason. When the boys ask if the seal, swimming relentlessly up and down in a small, dirty pool, remembers the ocean the bear answers,

“Of course it remembers. Its mind is filled with the crashing of waves. The ocean called out to it from the moment it was born. Its ancestors swam there; its kin swim there today. It remembers the ocean because its blood and bones cannot forget it. Somewhere out there, there’s a gap in the water, a place which is hollow because the seal isn’t there.” (102)

“Do you think it remembers the ocean?”

The hope that the boys will find the keys to the cages and free the animals remains until the final chapter. Hartnett allows the reader to decide what their end will be: does a peaceful death come with the visitation of the Roma saint Black Sarah or is it Alice, with the chance for life, who has returned to free the animals? So much to discuss and think about. There are teaching notes by Dr Pam McIntyre ( The_Midnight_Zoo PDF )  to use in the classroom and for those interested in eco-philosophy and this book definitely read this article “You Are a Mysterious Animal, You Know” by Aliona Yarova.


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