________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 8 . . . . December 9, 2005


The Zoo Room.

Louise Schofield. Illustrated by Malcolm Geste.
Vancouver, BC: Simply Read Books, 2005.
32 pp., cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 1-894965-19-1.

Subject Heading:
Picture books for children.

Grades 2-4 / Ages 7-9.

Review by Sandi Harrison.

** /4


Max wanted something a bit different. “Are the insects crunchy?” he asked. The waiter nodded. “Unreal!” he giggled. “That’s what I’ll have.”

They sat and watched the other customers while they waited for their orders. Some of the diners were making real pigs of themselves. The kookaburras laughed at a joke.

At last their meals arrived. Max and Kelly were so hungry they forgot their manners, but eating like animals was not a problem at the Zoo Room.

For Max’s birthday, his mysterious and strangely elusive Aunt Zelda throws him and his family a party at the Zoo Room restaurant, a secret, raucous restaurant where animals go wild after zoo visiting hours are finished. There Max, his sister and parents eat exotic dishes and interact with the kangaroos, bears, monkeys and many other beasts to celebrate Max’s birthday in a most unusual way.

     Written from a third-person perspective, the plot in this book is considerably shaky. The lack of conflict results in a lack of action, leaving the short storyline feeling flat and confused. When Max resists eating the insects he has ordered, his mother tells him, “You ordered it. You eat it.” Without any complaints, he eats them and likes them. Presumably Australian author Louise Schofield has attached the intended moral of “Try it, you might like it, but don’t order it if you won’t,” to her first picture book, but having Max learn this only as a direct result of his mother’s orders is disappointing.

internal art

     Max’s character is not especially strong as he is always accompanied by his parents and does exactly what they say (as nice as that would be!). There is no opportunity for him to encounter a problem and solve it himself. The insect-eating is set up (though this is possibly contradictory to what Schofield intended) as the highlight of the night, with illustrations of an insect-munching Max adorning both the cover and the final page.

     The side plots Schofield includes muddle what storyline is given; Aunt Zelda never comes forward to talk to the children but remains tucked away in the corners of most pages like a female version of Where’s Waldo? for no understandable reason. Another interruption in the text occurs when the family discovers - three pages from the end of the story - that a tiger is missing from the zoo; the children anticlimactically shrug it off because, they reason, they can still go visit the other animals in the zoo whenever they want. Although Schofield has many good ideas for her story, combining them causes a loss of luster in the writing.

     Malcolm Geste’s illustrations in The Zoo Room breathe life into the weaker points of the story. The characters appear to be almost 3-D, and in places literally step out of the borders of the page closer to the text and the reader. Cartoonish and filled with movement, they offer the child reader a chance to engage with the kooky activities in the Zoo Room, and, as well, to find Aunt Zelda, who is hiding in nearly every page. Children will enjoy the images of the food (and likely squirm in disgust - and delight - at Max’s choice of dinner). The illustrations occasionally stray from the words on the page, possibly from a lack of visual cues in the wording. They are sometimes too graphic, with multiple illustrations of a zebra being shredded into bloody bits by the tigers, gnashing teeth, and, on one page, a bird defecating onto the father’s head. On the whole, however, the images work well to complement the text, but, at times, disrupt or supersede it.

     Despite the absence of conflict and action, The Zoo Room offers the chance to immerse readers in an incredible fantasy - What would it be like to have a party with animals at the zoo? As well as evoking the imagination, it also introduces new terms for older readers to discuss, like herbivore, omnivore and carnivore, and refers to animals possibly foreign to the Canadian child reader, like the Kookaburra. These terms and creatures open up the dialogue to discussion of various countries and their flora and fauna.

Recommended with reservations.

Sandi Harrison is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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