Thursday, October 24, 2013

Yay! I can finally review this book! What's New at the Zoo? by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, introduction by Phyllis Newman (illustrated by Travis Foster)

What's New at the Zoo?
Authors: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
(based on song lyrics)
Introduction by: Phyllis Newman
Illustrator: Travis Foster
Publisher: Blue Apple Books
Publication Date: September 13, 2011
View on Amazon

Source: I received a review copy (hardcover) from illustrator Travis Foster. Thank-you so much!

Nearly a year ago, I received a digital review copy of this book from Blue Apple Books through the Edelweiss Above the Treeline program. Unfortunately, the file didn't work properly and when I tried to contact the publisher I did not get a reply. Alas, I couldn't review it, though I did talk about my wish that I COULD review it in blog post here. Luckily, Travis Foster read it and so graciously offered to send me a copy so I could review it for real. So nice!

My Take:
Even if the digital file had worked, I don't think it would have done the book justice. The hardcover edition has large lift out flaps with illustrations that are both bold and subtle at the same time. It's really best experienced as a print book. Actually one of my favourite things about the book is how the illustrations are done in layers, with shiny line drawings in the background to compliment the full-colour illustrations in the front. It adds to the feeling of the zoo animals being frantically crowded, without making the pictures appear messy or overwhelming. But that detail would have been lost in a digital edition, I think.

Magda's Take:
My daughter Magda enjoyed the illustrations and the words from the song lyrics (more on that later) but overall she found it a "sad book about a sad subject." I asked her why she thought it was so sad and she said, "Because the animals are being so mean to each other, stepping on each other's necks and tails, but it's because they're so crowded. If the zoo wasn't crowded the animals wouldn't be so unhappy. Did they not have bigger zoos for them? It's so sad!"

A Little Background:
Although the book made Magda a little sad, I think she got the point of the story. The song, "What's New at the Zoo?" is from the musical Do-Re-Mi (which you may remember as the original source of the song, "Make Someone Happy"). According to the afterword by Phyllis Newman (wife of late composer Adolph Green), the cramped conditions of the Central Park Zoo was the real inspiration for the song, and she was delighted when--decades later--the zoo was transformed into a more spacious and comfortable environment for the animal residents. It was changed in response to criticisms of the living conditions of zoo animals and changing attitudes toward zoos in general. While this specific song may not have been the catalyst for such shifts, it's nice to know that some of these changes have been made. And it's also nice to see a children's book that, while still fun and silly, encourages children to think critically about the way we treat animals in our care (an element that is often missing from the thousands and thousands of farm and zoo themed children's books).

More About the Song:
Stuck on how to read this book aloud if you aren't familiar with the song? Well you can read it as it sounds, as a silly rhyming book. Or if you'd like to hear the song, check out this performance by some vary talented kids at one of the book's launch events.

More About the Book:
You can see some examples of the Travis Foster's fantastic illustrations on the publisher's website or on his website,

Also, the illustrations reminded me a little of another fantastic book, I Am Too Absolutely Small for School, by Lauren Child (published in 2003 by Candlewick Press). The main character, Lola, has an invisible friend named Søren Lorensen who is talked about throughout the whole book but is never seen. It was only after I was almost finished reading it that Magda and I noticed that Søren DOES appear in the book, only he's drawn in shiny translucent lines that only show up if you hold the book just the right way. We immediately started the book over again to try to spot Søren throughout. So charming!

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