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Uplifting Picture Books that Don’t Preach

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Uplifting Picture Books that Don’t Preach (February 9, 2007):

This almost wordless book turns a girl's dull day into one bursting with color and happiness.

The story is not really in the text. The text doesn't add much to it, and feels more like a brief list of events that don't even begin to describe what actually happens, than a story. In my opinion, the book would have been better without the text, as the text is a bit dull, without life. The real life and the true story in this book is in the illustrations.
The one thing the text did for me was underscore which animal sections the girl was visiting with her parents, making me notice that those particular animals were mysteriously not in their cages—and then all those animals were together with the little girl when she visited them by following the peacock into the color.
The reader might be put off by the first spread of illustrations that look somewhat like awkward scribbled child's drawings cut out and pasted on a background—but keep turning. The illustrations come alive in the next few pages, where Lee's talent becomes apparent through her keen observations of human interaction, strong caricatures of people that capture mood and expression, visual depth, and sense of anatomy. I would have preferred a more finished look to some of the illustrations, but they have their own charm—especially after a second and third reading.
The colored pencil and collage illustrations start off heavily grey and dull blue, with the only spots of color being the pink on the girl's cheeks, and the bright colors of the peacock. This lack of color highlights the moment when the girl follows the peacock—as she does, she transforms from grey into color, and moves into a world bursting with color, as she discovers and plays with the friendly, fancifully colored animals (giraffes with crazy-quilt spots of blue, green, red, pink, and purple, or pink or purple; an orange crocodile and blue monkey; purple and turquoise birds; and rainbow colored trees).
Lee has merged two different stories into the same book—the story of the girl visiting the animals on her own and delightedly playing with them, and the story of the frantic parents who have lost their child and are searching for her. Some readers may find the frantic, bleak parents distressing. It would have helped me to see the parents looking happy when they leave with their child.
The girl remains in color at the end of the day, even after she leaves, as if she is recharged or more alive because of the fun she had. The color makes a clear distinction between the two major stories that occur in the story, as the girl and the animals are always vibrantly colored (once the girl discovers them), while the girl's frantic parents remain dull throughout the day.
The girl's playtime takes off into fantasy as she gleefully slides down the neck of a giraffe and flies with the birds. As she flies, one of her pink boots falls off, and the gorilla catches it. The girl is still missing her boot when she leaves with her parents. The gorilla has it—which suggests that it wasn't all the girl's imagination. The details of real life, combined with fantasy, make the fantasy more believable.
There is so much to see in the illustrations; readers will love discovering all the things that the people and animals are doing—the little and big dramas, the connections from page to page (like the girl getting a peacock balloon before entering the zoo, then leaving it in her father's hand as she follows the real live peacock, the father letting go of his daughter's bird balloon when he realizes she's missing, and that bird balloon floating by the happy girl and her new animal friends, and then in the end appearing back in the girl's hand). Some of the people who appeared in the first few pages also appear in the last.
More is added to the story through illustrations printed right on the front and end papers, as we see the gorilla bursting out of his cage, joining an elephant and monkey, and on the end papers, being pushed back into his cage by the monkey.

Lee's layered and multiple-thread story, flight of fantasy, and distinct illustrative style make this an enjoyable book.

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (February 11, 2007):

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.
Library Goddesses Picture Books (February 13, 2007):

Even without the strikingly beautiful illustrations in this book, the story would still be a winner. It is a story told from two divergent points of view--one color and one black and white!! A trip to the zoo may be a delight for a wandering child but her parents aren't having nearly as good a time!! And don't miss the endpapers.

Fuse #8 Production (February 14, 2007):

Sometimes I'll hold off on reviewing a book if I feel that it's received enough attention on the other blogs. I'd do the same with this title too if it weren't so doggone amazing. So I apologize if you've heard it all before. If the purpose of this blog is to review the best and brightest, far be it from me to leave someone out.

American publishers, by and large, move with the speed of pure, refined molasses when it comes to introducing U.S. audiences to foreign picture books. Considering the scads of remarkable books available all over the world, it’s a crying shame that more than 95% of what we see on the American picture book market tends to be of the homegrown variety. Don’t expect this situation to get better any time soon either. With cries proclaiming that picture books are no longer profitable, I wouldn’t be any too surprised if publishers decide to play it "safe" for the next few years. Maybe that’s why I like Kane/Miller so much. Far from limiting their scope, they do everything in their power to bring this country some eclectic, fun, and funny titles from a variety of different regions. Take Korea. You may have read a Korean picture book once or twice in your life. I myself am rather fond of, “While We Were Out” Ho Baek Lee (who is South Korean). But while we might be able to rustle up some Korean-American writers, books straight out of that general vicinity are not entirely common. “The Zoo”, by Suzy Lee ends up all the sweeter then as a result. Not only is it a visually stimulating lark but it also happens to be one of the more creative picture books you’re likely to get your hands on this coming season.

A child is going to the zoo with her mom and dad. Sadly, there isn’t much to see in the uniformly empty cages. So as the older members of the family strain to catch even a glimpse of a bear on Bear Hill, the little girl follows a wayward peacock. Immediately the bird leads her to a multi-colored landscape where the child plays gleefully amongst watering holes, long-necked giraffes, and (in a burst of flight) even the sky itself. The parents are in a panic, but soon find their little one sleeping peacefully on one of the zoo’s many benches. Was it real or just a dream? The answer is left to the reader. One thing everyone can agree on though, “I love the zoo. It’s very exciting. Mom and Dad think so too."

The feel of the book took me back to my childhood. I lived during the heyday of foreign language children’s programming, where animated shorts from all over the world would sometimes play on basic cable. Reading “The Zoo” is a similar experience. Everything in the book is easy to understand with a straightforward plot. Yet at the same time, it feels different from the roughly 2 billion based-in-Brooklyn storybooks currently out there. The signs are in Korean. The people are all Korean. The feel of the narrative, scope of the vision, and subject matter (which I doubt any American writer could get away with here) is foreign to our senses.

The cover says it all. You go to the zoo and what do you get a ton of? Empty cages. It’s very interesting, but this book actually requires that you remove the dust jacket to get the whole story. Take off the dust jacket and the empty cage on the cover wraps around to reveal an escaping gorilla on the endpapers making good his escape. Turn to the back of the book and the gorilla is back in his cage tenderly holding a hot pink shoe. The shoe, actually, is a testament to Lee’s playful sense of humor. Sharp-eyed readers will be able to detect the exact moment when the little girl’s shoe falls and into what pair of hands it lands. Better still is the fact that she is not seen wearing a second shoe for half of the book, playing with the sense of what is real and what is make-believe here. Sadly, for all its cleverness and (dare I say) necessity, the cover may turn off potential purchasers. Empty cages that make a point are all well and good, but if a browsing patron isn’t interested in reading the book through they may discount the drab gray packaging too soon.

As for the art, it balances the monochrome blue-gray dreariness of mundane everyday life with the sparkle, color, and flash of the animal kingdom. The first official two page spread shows the family entering the zoo, with the only visible color appearing on the girl’s flushed cheeks and a peacock sitting high above. While the text reads off a seemingly mundane list of places visited, the girl and her peacock friend are easily identifiable by the splotches of bright shades and hues adorning them. You can also spot the girl via the bird-shaped balloon that hangs above her. That balloon goes on a kind of journey of its own, as it happens, and it’s well worth rereading the book to discover where it goes. Lee never drops a single detail, and in the midst of raucous colors, fine drawing, and panache there’s a current of realism beneath it all. When the parents discover that their daughter is missing, distraught doesn’t even cover what they’re feeling. She may be having a wonderful time with the animals, but reflected in the hippo’s watering hole is the face of every parents' deepest fear.

Is it for all parents? Oh lordy begordy, no. Wish it were the case, but you’re undoubtedly going to get a couple here and there that see this book as a story where it’s okay to run away from your parents in a public space. Obviously, every child that reads this book isn’t going to be instantly swept up in the notion of going walkabout on the next family outing would lead to adventure. Still, it’s hard to brush the image of the girls’ parents running as fast as possible through the empty zoo in a blind panic. Personally, I think the book identifies how wonderful freedom feels to a child. You’re forever under someone’s protection. How cool would it be then to transfer that protection to the wild and wacky animals in the zoo? Add in the amazing details, good storytelling, and smart art and there’s very little left to gripe about.

Frankly, I see no reason why a person couldn’t pair this book easily alongside Peggy Rathmann’s, “Goodnight, Gorilla”, for an entirely zoo-oriented bedtime series. There’s a lot of sleeping and animalian mischief going on in both of these titles. “The Zoo” is going to be one of those books that catches on purely through word-of-mouth. As smart and funny as it is, American consumers will need to know about it from a reliable source before giving themselves over to its purchase. Trust me then when I tell you that this one’s a keeper. Subtle without being so understated as to alienate its child readers, this book feels like a silent film where the narrator sits next to you, quietly telling you the story. Rare and wonderful.

For Immediate Release (February 14, 2007):

What child does not love going to the zoo? For me, when I was growing up, the St. Louis Zoo, the closest zoo, was about 2 hours away from home. We only had a chance to visit it once or twice per year. I love the zoo, and this book really illustrates how magical the zoo can be to a child. Children rarely notice the heat, the smell of the monkey house, the crowded parking lot, or the pricey concessions. To a child, a zoo is pure paradise.

In this book by Suzy Lee, a small girl visits a zoo with her parents. The illustrations are so striking. When the girl and her parents visit an exhibit, everything seems dark. The pencil drawings use little color, mainly blues, greys, and other muted tones. However, the girl quickly wanders off to explore, and wherever the girl goes, a plethora of gorgeous colors follow. The colors seem other-worldly, with blue monkeys, purple elephants, green giraffes, and birds of all colors. The panic on the faces of the parents is clearly marked, as is the glee of the small explorer. Happily, everyone is reunited at the end, and the little girl comes away with a strong love for the zoo, and the animals contained within.

This book is so beautiful, and it is it's simplicity that makes it so. There is no need for eloquent words or high-tech collages. Simple, yet incredibly well defined, Lee's pencil and crayon illustrations are perfectly combined with the sparse prose. This is a wonderful book for parents and children to enjoy together.
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