Where Imagination Reigns

September 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

"The Way to the Zoo" by John BurninghamI’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before. When I was ten, I was obsessed with Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, the award-winning novel about a boy who runs away to live in a hollowed-out tree in the Catskill Mountains. This (naturally) meant that I started pretending that my New York City bedroom, a tiny room off the kitchen, on the opposite end of our apartment from my parents and sister, was actually the top of a mountain, covered with rocky terrain and miles from civilization. When I’d wash my face before bed, in the teeny adjoining bathroom, I’d turn on the cold tap, close my eyes, and imagine that I was splashing myself from an icy mountain stream.

Yes, I was a book nerd (still am). But I’m letting you in on this little secret twenty years later to make a point: for children, bedrooms have always been magical gateways to flights of imagination. Take Where the Wild Things Are, my four-year-old daughter’s current obsession. Is it a coincidence that young Max is sent to his bedroom before the walls fall away and he journeys to the land of the Wild Things? Of course not. The boy’s adventures behind closed doors are entirely his own. They are private. They are bizarre. They are scary. They are magnificent.

I told you recently about how my daughter claims a raccoon visits her each night while she sleeps, making a “racket-tacket” loud enough to wake her up. So I instantly knew that John Burningham’s The Way to the Zoo (Ages 3-7)—a new picture book about a girl who discovers a secret door in her bedroom leading to a zoo, thereby unleashing a slew of nightly visits from different animals—would be a slam dunk for us.

Before I tell you how absolutely adorable it is to read a story about a girl that bathes with penguins, lets a koala sleep in her bed, and comforts a baby elephant too large to fit through the door, I need to say a few words about John Burningham. The British author-illustrator has been making children’s books for over 50 years, which makes him a contemporary of Maurice Sendak; like the latter, he is also a tremendous influencer of the picture book as we know it today. His characteristic art, comprised of loose pencil and ink lines with rough watercolor washes, has a kind of “everyman” quality. The yellow-haired schoolgirl named Sylvie in The Way to the Zoo has a face that’s largely nondescript, as if inviting the child reader to insert herself into her place. (Sylvie reminds me of those cloth Waldorf dolls—have you seen them?—with nothing more than two pinpoint eyes and a tiny yarn stitch for a mouth, the idea being that the child can more easily project her own imagination onto the doll during play).

"The Way to the Zoo" by John Burningham

Like Sendak, Burningham makes copious use of the white of the page, rarely taking up more than half a page with a picture, and sometimes less than that. The simple settings—in this case, the house’s furniture—have an almost incomplete quality, as if once again encouraging the child to fill in the blanks. This is one of those books that, as adults, children will remember as having much more detail than what is actually there. Once a good story takes up residence in a child’s imagination, there’s no telling where or how it might soar.

And then there are the animals. Oh, the animals! I first fell in love with the way Burningham draws animals in Hey, Get Off Our Train!, a fantastical, socially-conscious story about a boy who saves different animals from extinction by inviting them aboard his dream train (here again, we have a story that begins with a boy alone in his bedroom, playing with a toy train). Like his human figures, Burningham’s animals have very simple facial features; and yet, their movements (the tilt of a head, the upward stretch of an arm) convey mischief, desire, pleasure or loneliness. In The Way to the Zoo, the personalities run the full gamut, a herd of gangly zoo animals eager to try domestic life, vis-a-vis the porthole into Sylvie’s room.

"The Way to the Zoo" by John Burningham

The dramatic beauty of this story lies in Sylvie’s response to these animals. In the absence of adults, in the privacy of her bedroom, Sylvie gets to experiment with different roles: she’s caretaker, party planner, problem solver; she’s queen of her own domain. She’s even a disciplinarian, because, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, she finally has to pitch a fit to get the animals to listen to her. She is brave, she is nurturing, she is empathetic, she is silly—and she has limits to all of it. She gets to know herself alongside the animals.

"The Way to the Zoo" by John Burningham

So, the next time you hear your child talking after lights out; the next time they want to play behind the closed door of their bedroom, under their bed with 17 of their favorite stuffed animals; the next time you hear the faucet running in the middle of the night…you might be privy to something beyond your wildest imagination. And you’ll never know the half of it.

Other Favorites Written and/or Illustrated by John Burningham:
Picnic (Ages 1-3; also new this year but I expect it will someday make an even better board book)
There’s Going to be a Baby, by John Burningham & illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (who, coincidentally, is also his wife! Ages 2-5)
Mr. Gumpy’s Outing (Ages 2-5)
The Magic Bed (Ages 3-6)
Hey, Get Off Our Train! (Ages 4-8)
Cloudland (Ages 4-8)
Harvery Slumfenberger’s Christmas Present (Ages 4-8; alas, now out of print but still cherished by our family each holiday season!)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, by Ian Fleming & illustrated by John Burningham (Ages 8-12; younger if reading aloud)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of this book free of charge from Candlewick. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

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