For my brothers and me, it was a pack a picnic lunch, spend the day occasion. The event usually included at least two or three aunts and several cousins. During winter months I wrote letters to Suzy the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo (which I never mailed). When I grew up, I took my own kids, chaperoned classes and troops, even hosted a birthday party at the Louisville Zoo. I remember looking back over my shoulder at the cleanup crew hosing out our party room, washing away ice cream and chocolate cake and trampled party streamers and thinking that was the ONLY way to celebrate a birthday. What took me so long to learn this?
Did I ever want to live at the zoo? No, but what if I had? Author Irene Latham could be a kindred spirit.
DON’T FEED THE BOY by Irene Latham, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin, Roaring Book Press, 2012
Whit, eleven, has lived his whole life at the Meadowbrook Zoo. Dad is head elephant keeper and Mom is a veterinarian and zoo director. Ms. Connie is his kind, understanding, home-school teacher who has always been there for him.
Wherever one lives, a few well thought-out rules make life run more smoothly. Here are the rules Whit’s parents expect him to follow:
1) Don’t feed the animals.
2) Schoolwork comes first.
3) Don’t leave the zoo property for any reason.
Now that Whit is approaching middle school, these rules are beginning to feel confining, like a skin that’s growing too tight. He looks at life, his life in particular, and wonders what it would be like to fit into a world of people. Little does he know that is exactly what other middle school kids are wondering, too. They just do their wondering at a public school while Whit is fulfilling Ms. Connie’s assignments and bemoaning his predictable routine at the zoo. In some of his moodiest moments, he even thinks his parents care more for the animals than they do for him.
And then Whit notices a girl who looks to be about his age and who appears at the zoo every day. She settles into the same spot and draws pictures of the birds. He christens her “Bird Girl” and wonders why she is always alone. It takes some time, but he finally works up enough courage to talk to her. His courage is rewarded. They become friends.
Surely there is an ancient saying somewhere that says one should always see home through another’s eyes to truly appreciate it. Whit thinks his ability to recite all the keepers’ public performances for the public--like every word the keeper says at feeding time at Pelican Plaza-- shows just how dull and boring his life is. However, Stella’s eyes grow round with surprise and admiration at each recitation. As Whit points out small things that only an everyday person could see or observe or understand, he realizes how much he loves his home.
When Whit gets to see what Stella’s home life is like, his theories about families and the lives other people surely must enjoy more than he enjoys his, come to a screeching halt. Stella needs help. Whit is determined to provide that help. As Stella and Whit try to solve some adult-sized problems, the carousel and train figure into a variety of plot twists and turns.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say parents will applaud and kid readers will be happy for both Whit and Stella. (No, Whit’s parents do not adopt her.)
Illustrations capture the characters and their emotions as if a photographer followed this engaging pair and offered them a package of photos at the end of their zoo trip to be a souvenir of their vacation. In her acknowledgements, Author Latham addresses illustrator Stephanie Graegin: ”You’ve charmed Whit and the Bird Girl to tender life.” Tender is a fitting word. They are like tender shoots of the flowers they will become.
For more about Irene, see her webpage and be sure to visit her blog and read happy news about Don’t Feed the Boy.