Welcome to the Zoo

Welcome to the Zoo alison jay

Welcome to the Zoo, by Alison Jay

Reviewed by Susan Fry 

Why don’t more books for adults have illustrations? Everyone agrees that it’s vitally important to visit museums and galleries. But the grownup books with pictures, such as manga or comics, are given only cult status at best. Why is art on walls “art,” but “fringe” on the page?

Kids are SO lucky to get books with paintings in them. At the top of my list are the ones by Alison Jay. And at the tip-top of my list of Jay’s books is Welcome to the Zoo. The book is wordless, the story – or, rather, stories – carried entirely by the illustrations. Jay’s pictures take the reader on a trip through a zoo without cages, in which animals and people mix with laugh-out-loud results.

Both my four- and six-year-old loved figuring out which animals and people had their own storylines. It may take a multiple readings to realize that animals are eating the entire contents of a family’s picnic basket, page by page. Or that an ostrich, pursued by a zookeeper, escapes on the last page by hopping into a bus. There are so many tiny, delightful mysteries to solve: why is one zookeeper carrying an oversized toothbrush, and another a giant baby bottle? People fall into pools with dolphins, zookeepers climb ladders to feed giraffes, a tiger’s roar blows over a penguin, and polar bears lick popsicles.

At the end, one my sons asked, “When can we go to that zoo?”

You’ll be able to recognize Jay’s illustrations at a glance. They combine a modern cheerfulness with the old-world flavor of medieval oil paintings. Jay’s stylized animals, people, and plants are exaggerated shapes that are still instantly recognizable. The elephants are whimsically blown up into enormous, round bellies on tiny little legs. The impossible, but somehow jaunty, people have tiny heads and weeble-middles. Everything seems barely tethered to the ground, giving all her pictures a fairytale quality. Her colors are equally fantastical — pastels that seem vivid because Jay happily juxtaposes sherbet greens and cotton candy pinks.

But the lovely, archaic touch that makes Jay’s paintings unique? She uses a paint varnish that produces the fine network of lines across the surface known as “crackle,” cracks that usually only appear on very, very old paintings.

It’s hard not to let the sheer visual joy of Jay’s pictures distract from the fascinating story they’re telling. No wonder my sons want to step into her world.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

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