The Zoo Box
By Ariel Cohn
Illustrated by Aron Nels Steinke
First Second (Macmillan)
Of all the mash-ups going on in children’s literature these days – think Hugo Cabret, Wimpy Kid, Flora & Ulysses – is any combination more natural than that of picture books and graphic novels? While it isn’t exactly new – and Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman would agree with me – it does seem to be that more and more books are adding comic book elements into the traditional picture book form (for the record, one such book, Mr. Wuffles! won a Caldecott Honor this year). Enter The Zoo Box, a picture book/graphic novel hybrid that will leave breathless.
Now, you both need to be in bed by the time we get back.
A simple request, right? Erika and Patrick’s parents are going out for the night, leaving the kids at home alone. While playing dress-up in the attic, Patrick comes across a zebra print hatbox with a DO NOT OPEN warning on the outside. You know what comes next, right? They open the box, releasing wild animals of every stripe. Erika and Patrick follow the herd and end up at a bizarre zoo where roles are reversed – the animals come to gawk at the humans – and Erika and Patrick aren’t exactly welcome.
Planet of the Apes meets Jumanji – that’s the best way I can come up with to describe a book that features a jarring species role-reversal and the magical element that brings our protagonists in close contact with wild animals.
Tension is used perfectly to keep readers on the edge of their seat. We know from the second page that Erika and Patrick have to be in bed by the time their parents get home. This creates a thrilling race-against-the-clock in the final third which concludes perfectly, with the siblings in their bunk beds, eyes fixed on the ceiling wondering “what just happened?”
The brightly-colored cartoon illustrations have the effect of keeping the mood light, which is a nice balance to the potentially heavy themes. The panel work is clear and easy to follow – perfect for the intended audience.
It’s entertaining from start to finish, with a bit of subtext that readers can reflect on. Worlds colliding in unforgettable ways.
Review copy from the publisher.
Also reviewed by The Busy Librarian.