Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Gerald McGrew seems a little jaded for a kid no taller than a zookeeper's knee.
Lions? He's seen 'em. Tigers? Old hat.
These yawn-inducing animals are just taking up valuable space. You see...
If you want to catch beasts you don't see every day,
You have to go places quite out-of-the-way.
You have to go places no others can get to.
You have to get cold and you have to get wet, too.
Gerald knows where to find ten-footed lions. Not just that, but he has the ambition and ingenuity to catch Thwerlls and Chuggs, and "the Russian Palooski, whose headski is redski and belly is blueski."
Seuss is the master of imaginary places and imaginary beasts, so you can certainly see where If I Ran the Zoo - with young Gerald boasting of all the fantastical lands he'll travel to in pursuit of the most fantastical animals - provides the good Dr. with an opportunity to cut loose.
I'll bag a big bug
Who is very surprising,
A feller who has
A propeller for rising
And zooming around
Making cross-country hops,
From Texas to Boston
With only two stops.
Now THAT sort of thing
For a bug is just tops.
Sounding a heck of a lot like Morris McGurk, who came along six years later to impose his own vision in Seuss's If I Ran the Circus (reviewed on this site), Gerald is a can-do kid with imagination to match his ambition. Not only does he tell us of the far off lands and animals he captures, he also details the specialized devices he'll fashion to catch them.
But here's the thing...
The book kept making me a bit uncomfortable. Some Seuss shows its age, some doesn't. Evolving standards of decency make this one feel a little dated. (It won a Caldecott Honor in 1951.) And I'm not talking about the notion of a zoo.
(I know the arguments against. I know the arguments for.)
Morris describes the inhabitants of Zomba-ma-Tant, who "wear their eyes at a slant." He shows us the inhabitants of an African island, who look distressingly like old racially exaggerated figurines.
Once I started noticing such things, it tainted the whole book for me. The all-white crowd at McGrew's Zoo no longer looked so innocent. To check my perceptions, I googled If I Ran the Zoo along with the word racist and came back with over 50,000 hits, so clearly I'm not alone.
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