Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: A Room With A Zoo

by Jules Feiffer. Michael di Capua Books (Hyperion), 2005. We just got this book into our library and I adore it. Feiffer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist (The New Yorker) who lives in New York City with his family. He's written and illustrated more than ten books for children, including The Man in the Ceiling and A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, which are on my summer reading list.

Feiffer has written A Room With a Zoo from the perspective of his eight year old daughter Julie. She desperately wants a dog but her parents won't let her get one until she is old enough to walk it by herself in the city.

"How old do you have to be?" I asked.
"Twelve," my father said.
"Eleven," my mother said.
"Eleven and a half," my father said.
"Ten," I said.
"Eleven," my father said.
"Ten and a half," my mother said.
That's when I got my good idea. "You don't have to walk a cat, do you?"
I could tell how really good the idea was by the expression on their faces. I could have counted up to a hundred before they said anything."

This is the way it goes. We see the parents through Julie's eyes, as she describes in detail the body language, facial expressions and verbal exchanges of her parents. She has that particular wisdom of the young who are somewhat mystified by the way adults work but have the instincts to manipulate us by our weaknesses and our affection for them.

I liked how she casually mentions, in chapter 6, that she is adopted like her friend Natasha. Natasha is from Russia, not Tennessee like Julie, but they both want pets that their parents won't allow so they compare notes and strategies. A few chapters later Julie explains that she is "brown" and her parents are white. That's the only mention of her transracial adoption. The book is illustrated by charming drawings done by her dad, in which she looks like she has African American hair and facial features, so I had an idea that she was Black. I wondered about her family make up when I studied the drawings closely, trying to figure out if her older sister was Black too (she's not). After the first third of the book I had figured out that it was a mixed race family. I like finding a great story that includes that but isn't all about race and ethnicity as problems.

In her long term quest to own a dog Julie acquires two cats, a hamster, seven fish (one is big and ugly and eats all the little ones), a turtle and a visiting (sick) school rabbit. She doesn't like the first cat because it is sick and then mean and unsociable. She doesn't like the big, ugly, mean fish because he eats all her little fish. She thinks about getting rid of him but then decides against it.

"If I got rid of Oscar, then maybe I should be gotten rid of too. Since my parents would never do that and I was kind of Oscar's parent, how could I do it to him? You have to keep your child even when he's bad. So I had to keep Oscar and make myself forgive him."

As an adoptive parent of course I make parallels between the adjustments adoptive kids often make and how Julie relates to her pets. All parents worry about how their kids will deal with the grief of losing a pet and the complexities of caring for pets. But adopted kids have all the attachment baggage making it a higher risk. In the background I can just imagine the conversations going on between Julie's parents, as they try to find the safest, most successful pet. Fish and rabbits turn out not to be the ones.

There are really funny scenes when the kids have to do ballroom dancing on stage in front of their families and they break out in Ooga Booga dancing instead, and when the family drives to Massachusetts with a sick cat in the car. The best one is when Julie forgets to clean the fish tank and her dad tries to help her empty it into the tub to clean it. The fish is in the toilet and the hamster is loose with two cats chasing it when her father's back goes out and he is paralyzed on the bathroom floor. Reading this I was laughing out loud and keeping my children awake.

I think this book would be a delightful read-aloud for grades 2 and 3. The story line is complex enough to keep them on the edge of their seats and the humorous vignettes break up the tension. Keep this title on your list of books for next year if you've got kids age 5 through 9.

1 comment:

Tricia said...

William and I read this during the winter break. We howled together over many of the scenes. It is was so much fun, we may just read it again!