As a child, Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, was one of my favorite books and still is, although I think kids today have to have a certain sensibility and love of language to really enjoy it. Perhaps this is why I was so excited when Jules Feiffer published Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears in 1998. Somehow, despite my love of Feiffer's works and my own mini-menagerie, I missed reading A Room with a Zoo when if was first published in 2005. However, I think I read it at just the right time. In addition to being a fabulous book, Jules Feiffer manages to do something that I think is sorely lacking in the world of young adult literature, as you might know from my post on precocious girls: create a genuine voice and thought process for a 9-10 year old girl in fourth grade. Julie, the main character in A Room with a Zoo is not sassy or quirky, she does not get attention for being the squeaky wheel. She is a realistic kid who wants things that real kids want, and her parents are realistic adults who want to make their daughter happy but also see how her passion will mean more work for them.
Feiffer does such a great job of getting into Julie's head and detailing her thought process, perhaps because Julie really is Feiffer's daughter and A Room with a Zoo is her real life story with a "fictional makeover," as the flap notes. As a parent, I have always been amazed by the things my kids think they know or know how to do with no prior knowledge or experience. Feiffer explains this for me perfectly, in Julie's words, "grown-ups know lots of stuff they call "experience," and they think that makes them right all the time. But they can be wrong. Like my mother and father are always apologizing...So if they keep saying they're sorry, it proves they know they can be wrong." And thus Julie can be right even if they think she's wrong. This is an astute observation on Julie's part, and a brilliant example of a child's logic on Feiffer's part. Julie expounds on her theory while trying to convince herself that her "Great Experiment," her plan to make her cat and hamster into the best of friends, is a good idea. In another bit of brilliance, Feiffer captures a child's reasoning when he devotes a whole chapter to why Julie procrastinates, waiting until the last minute to ask her parents for a permission note that will allow her to enter a drawing to win the chance to take the class rabbit home for Spring Break. Ultimately, despite the fact that she has been pestering her teacher about the drawing for weeks, Julie admits to herself that she can't ask her parents for the permission note because she doesn't want to use up all her "asks." She wants to save her "big ask" for the dog that she desperately wants to own. She finally gets her note, the night before it is due and not without a argument with her mother who want to know why she waited until the last minute. When Julie can't explain her mother thinks that maybe it is the teacher's fault and threatens to have a word with her. This causes Julie to collapse on the floor, screaming "No!" Her mother relents but, in the way that happens so often with kids, she can't enter the drawing because her note has disappeared from it's special place in her backpack.
I guess I should stop here to tell you a bit about the plot, which in and of itself is also genius. Julie wants a dog. Her parents don't want the responsibility and put her off by saying she has to wait until she is 10 and a half and old enough to walk a dog by herself. However, while she waits for a dog she ends up with "in lieu of" pets. How many of you out there have done this? I know I have. We put my son off for years when he asked for a dog and in the interim we acquired box turtles, beta fish, hermit crabs, guinea pigs, rabbits and assorted cats (ok, I'm the cat person, the cats were for me...) and finally a dog. Julie ends up with a sick cat, then a hamster. Then an aquarium to distract the cat from the hamster. Then more fish. Then a turtle. Then another cat. Then a hermit crab. Then, finally, after a huge disaster that involves a fish in the toilet, a broken vase, a bad, back, stitches and the death of one pet at the jaws of another - which is handled very well - Julie gets her dog. And I cried. I can't help it. I'm a baby when it comes to animals, and this book is just so well written it was unavoidable. I can't say enough how impressed I am, as someone who has read hundreds of children's books, by Feiffer's ability to capture the true voice of a child. I read the book from cover to cover, every word. And fourth grade is the perfect reading level for this book as well. Any lower and the story would have been less complex by necessity. Any higher and the subject matter might have been lost on most kids, who have moved on, sadly to more teenage pursuits by this point. I applaud Jules Feiffer for this magnificent addition to children's literature and I plan to make sure that it is always on the shelf at the bookstore where I work so I can recommend it often.
Jules Feiffer is also a superb picture book author and illustrator. One of my all time favorites, and a book that gets any and every kid's attention (and laughs) when I read at story time is Bark, George which is the story of a dog who meows, quacks, oinks, and so on instead of barking. When his concerned mother takes him to the vet, some very surprising things pop up. This book also has a terrific twist at the end and is great for emerging readers to cut their teeth on. Meanwhile... is another of my favorites and reminds me a bit of Remy Charlip's Fortunately as the main character hops from adventure to disaster. Finally, I Lost My Bear, captures the questionable looking skills that children so often employ when searching for something important they have lost.