Tuesday, October 25

Where's Walrus

by Steven Savage
Scholastic 2011

After escaping from the zoo a Walrus find "ingenious" ways to remain hidden in plain sight from the zookeeper. Complete with "twist" ending!

I have to call this one the way I see it: It's Where's Waldo meets Goodnight Gorilla. Also: this is a board book disguised as a picture book.

One afternoon while the zookeeper naps nearby a Walrus, in what looks like an above ground swimming pool, simply waddles out the gates of the zoo and into the big city. In scene by wordless scene the Walrus hides in plain sight by blending in. Here he is a statue in the fountain. There he is a fireman working a hose. It often takes little more than a hat and a few props to elude the zookeeper, who besides working at one of the poorest designed zoos in the world is clearly a dolt himself. Finally the Walrus hides at a diving competition (performing a "twist," if you will, off the high dive) where he is not only spotted by the zookeeper but wins a gold medal. This gives the zookeeper an idea and in the end Walrus has a new and more humane pool with a diving board to perform for the public.

Obviously, younger pre-readers are going to enjoy pointing out where the Walrus is on every page while laughing at the buffoon of a zookeeper for missing him. The simplified graphics on a picture book-size page seem like a waste; their flat tones and bold shapes would not only reduce well to a smaller sized board book they might actually look better for not taking up so much space.

As for the "twist" at the end, where Walrus's diving feats impress the zookeeper and provide him with a new home, well, that sort of speaks to why Walrus ran away in the first place. The story isn't just about a mischevious Walrus, it's about an animal in a pool so small that it has no way to entertain itself and must go in search of fun elsewhere. It not only answers the unasked question "Why did the Walrus escape from the zoo?" but underscores one of the larger issues surrounding the idea of capturing wild animals in the first place; is a zoo really the most humane way to appreciate wild animals? In the end Walrus isn't just a captured animal, he's an exploited one, putting on shows to draw people to the zoo.

Overthinking the book, am I? With a cute concept and easy-to-scan illustrations it can be easy to miss the imagery presented to young readers matter-of-factly. The treatment of animals in zoos and aquariums varies, and even where animals are well treated there is still the idea of our presenting animals in faux environments under the guise of their being educational. Many a time I've been to a zoo and seen a depressed animal in an enclosure – if you can read emotions in humans you can do it in animals equally well – and overheard parents tells young ones "Oh, they're just tired from running around all morning" or something equally dismissive. Go to the big cat house during feeding time and hear those lions and tigers roar with such ferocity that the sound penetrates your body and you appreciate the bars that separate you while at the same time realize that, perhaps, this is not the way things should be.

So despite my misgivings about the casual representation of zoos to small children, I think the book is fine for what it is. I don't know why this didn't go straight-to-board-book because I have a hard time understanding the justification for its size. If it were a truly Where's Waldo situation where you had to pour over the details of a page for hours to find the hidden elements I would understand it. As it is, Walrus is large, impossible to miss, and the humor of the zookeeper not finding him wears thin even for the few pages that it takes place in the story.
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