“Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo” *

h1 February 11th, 2007 by jules

* {The ever-so talented Paul Simon}

I began this post as one of those picture book rounds-ups that I like to do. I intended to share four new(ish) picture book titles with you. But I, very enthusiastically, wanted to begin with Suzy Lee’s The Zoo and found that I had innumerable glowing comments to make about it, or so it seemed (and I was talking a lot, bringing about a very long post). I decided, then, to give this title its own post. So here goes my heartfelt admiration for this flat-out splendid picture book title:

The Zoo by Suzy Lee
(not to be confused with the Suzy Lee of The White Stripes’ variety);
First American edition March 2007;
Kane/Miller;
my source: review copy

Wow. Wow. Wow. This is quite the mesmerizing and impressive picture book. I’ll be hard-pressed to find an upcoming ’07 picture book title whose illustrations please me as much as Suzy Lee’s do in The Zoo (obscenely bold statement, I know. It’s only February. But I mean it, and someone can call me later on it, if necessary). First published in Seoul, Korea, in 2004, we have, as always, Kane/Miller to thank for bringing over to the States a delightful title from another country and for introducing us . . . well, I’ll speak for myself . . . for introducing me to an author/illustrator I may have, otherwise, never heard of.

I am not always the best at determining an artist’s medium, and I cannot find an illustrator’s note in the book or online that states Lee’s medium in this title, but it looks to me as if it’s pencil, charcoal, and a bit of cut paper collage as well (is that what it’s called? Help, artists, help!). It’s almost breathtaking. Even the cover is brilliant in how Lee gives us a nudge-nudge-winky little hint as to the juxtaposition of greys and then sudden splashes of color you will see inside.

And look at it (the cover, that is) again. See how it says “The Zoo” and there’s a cage and all — yet no animals? Well, that’s because — after seeing and reading immediately in the first two spreads that a young girl is visiting the zoo with her mom and dad — we learn that when they visit the monkey house, Bear Hill, the hippos, etc., there are no animals in sight. The observant viewer will spot on the first spread, which is predominantly grey-blue, a brightly colored peacock with his eye on the little girl — and vice versa. On the next two spreads, he’s even closer (and, again, he provides the only splash of color). Suddenly, two roads diverge; she has wandered away from her parents and is following him.

And thus begins the gorgeous, thrilling journey into color, as she has completely given up on her parents and is cavorting with the animals. And it’s magnificent, almost staggering in its sudden vividness. And so we then flip-flop back and forth, back and forth — from the frantic parents in the rather listless, monotonous world of the greys to the girl prancing and frolicking about with the animals with sudden bright yellows and pinks and blues — each and every spread so expertly composed and executed and with great depth and texture, too. And with always-interesting but never distracting perspectives.

Amusingly enough, the text continues in this rather humdrum manner — “{w}e saw the giraffes, too,” for instance. Yet in this spread, the parents are increasingly distraught, running and searching for their daughter. “We visited the aviary,” we read {here the parents call her name}, and then next we see the girl flying through the air with the birds of the zoo — outside of their cage, of course (and with a nice touch: bottom right corner are someone’s hands, having released the birds. Look closely throughout Lee’s title, and you’ll see hushed, little moments like this all over).

Finally, her parents — with much relief, needless to say — find her, sleeping on a bench. “I love the zoo. It’s very exciting,” she says at the book’s close, her parents carrying her out, looking as if they could really use a drink or maybe three. They are completely and totally wiped out. The girl looks over her father’s shoulder to the zoo’s entrance, from which they are walking away. She sees all the brightly-colored animals, giving her a warm farewell. On the next page, “Mom and Dad think so too” {think the zoo is exciting, that is. How great and funny is that irony, folks?), as they turn their tired heads to look in the exact same spot, and they see nothing at the zoo’s entrance.

Nope, there is nothing there, making this book so sumptuously wonderful on yet another level — in that it’s a testament to the active, clever, sometimes maddening (for the parents), and always-churning imagination of children. But it’s even more than that, too (oh I just about can’t take all the levels on which this books works). Just look at Lee’s own blurb for this title on her site (and you reeeeeally want to click on that link, ’cause you can see there five — count them, five! — lovely spreads of Lee’s dynamic art work, including the girl’s aforementioned and downright glorious flight with the birds from the aviary):

This book is about the zoo, a strange place where children and adults alike learn about nature, but also about its deprivation and despair. Curiously, children see the zoo differently from adults’ perspective; they know how to make friends with animals.

Without getting into a Zoos-Good vs. Zoos-Bad/Life of Pi-type discussion here, I just want to say that Lee’s really onto something there. And, for the reason she gives above, this book draws children to it like a very strong, very hugely huge magnet.

But, as a parent myself, this book works on the adult level, too — quite well. As Anne put it in her review at Book Buds, “{b}een there, done that, had the heart attack. If this doesn’t make you chuckle knowingly, you don’t have kids.”

And, as a lover of picture books, let me tell ya, friends: Suzy Lee has made an insta-just-add-water fan out of me. O but heavens is she talented. She was born in Seoul, Korea; she studied painting in Seoul; and she then studied Book Arts in London. And she currently lives in Houston, Texas, of all places. Having immediately found her site as soon as I put the book down, I now really, REALLY want to see this and this and this and all these and much more. What are the chances I can get my hands on those international titles? By God, I will try.

I can’t recommend The Zoo enough. For school libraries. For public libraries. For elementary-aged children. For high schoolers (show them this book as a fine, fine example of how art and text merge to tell a story – in this case, actually, how the art predominantly tells the story in a grand defiance of what the text says), for one-hundred-and-five-year olds, and — most importantly — as a treat for yourself.

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2 comments to ““Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo” *”

  1. i’m sold. and if you figure out how to get that version of Alice, oh please let me know.


  2. I enjoyed your book review. I reviewed it also on January 9, 2007.
    I had the same feeling that I needed to know if Suzy Lee had anyting else in print in America and if not how could I get more of her books published in Korea or anywhere else?
    I want more books from Suzy Lee!


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