Reading Corner: Dear Zoo
One of the current favourites of my almost-two-year-old, Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, continues to captivate readers 38 years after it was first published!
The story is simple, yet offers so much scope for discussion and play. My little one predictably loves lifting the flaps to reveal each animal, but I’ve seen how even the variety of shapes, sizes and directions that the flaps open has been a source of learning for him from one reading to the next.
One of the best things about this book is that there is no given text inside the flap—just the picture. It’s up to you as an adult reading it aloud to decide if you want to stay silent, letting the picture do the talking; simply state what the animal is; make the animal’s sounds; or give a description of the animal.
Of course, kids live on repetition, so once you start reading it a particular way, they will likely expect (read: demand) that you rinse and repeat, but I, for one, like to play around with it. I love seeing what the kids chime in with. My son doesn’t speak much yet, but for some animals, like the monkey, he’s clearly latched onto the sounds as the primary identifier —“Ooh ooh ah ah!”
Repeated Sentence Structure
One of the joys of reading with young children is when they join in. Rituals and routines offer children predictability and stability in their day-to-day, and in stories, repeated lines and structures do the same. With the same sentence pattern each time another animal is introduced, this book makes it easy. For developing writers, it also provides a clear structure to follow (or not follow!).
Still, there are plenty of lift-the-flap and “animal vocab” books out there. The charm of Dear Zoo is that it introduces children to the different animals and some of their characteristics through a basic story, not only with a beginning, middle and end, but complete with an exposition, rising action, conflict, climax and resolution. Sometimes we talk about young writers that have a good "sense of story", but children are not born with this coming out of the womb! Children who read (or are read to) widely internalise the patterns and conventions of stories, which become sources of reference when they come to start making up their own.
It's for similar reasons that we use picture books with all age groups. Despite their apparent simplicity, they offer so much to young writers as they begin to read as writers. This book, after all, is not dissimilar in its premise to any (and every) story about a character with an unusual pet (My Snake Blake, My Penguin Osbert, How to Train a Dragon, Mr Popper’s Penguins, I could go on...). In fact, when we run our Complicated Companions writing workshop for 8- to 10-year-olds, we start with Dear Zoo!
Finally, that first line: "I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet." Without having to go into it or discuss it at all, readers of this book also get a glimpse into a purposeful use of writing — what more could a writing teacher ask for?