Review: The Zoo Box by Ariel Cohn and Aron Nels Steinke

The Zoo Box is a fun, but familiar story of some kids who accidentally open a pandora’s box of zoo animals. The world is filled with elephants, penguins, alligators and especially birds dressed as security guards.  The kids travel amongst these animals until they discover a chilling secret.  The illustrations are filled with details that younger kids will enjoy searching for and pointing out.  Overall, the book has quite a bit of energy to it.

Nominating The Zoo Box for the Oregon Book Awards in the Graphic Literature category, however, seems to be a mistake.  Graphic Literature may be the more cultured version of the now-common category Graphic Novels, but I still prefer calling them comic books.  The Zoo Box does not fit with my idea the comic book format.

I can't put my finger on the dividing line, but one has to ask what are the attributes that define a graphic novel?  As Scott McCloud so eloquently put it, the medium must have panels that are juxtaposed.  The spaces between the panels allow the reader to fill in the action.  Comics are not required to have word balloons. Some, such as Jim Woodring's Frank can be entirely mute, or others like Hal Foster's Prince Valiant fill in the story with text within the panel.  But if the characters speak in balloons, this pushes into comic book territory.  And the pages are generally arranged portrait, although this too is not a requirement.    

If there was some text accompanying the pictures, it would be a slam-dunk children's book. Since the characters speak in word balloons, there is a valid argument for putting The Zoo Box in the Graphic Literature category.

On the other hand, the layout looks like most children’s books. The hardbound, landscape format would be recognizable to most kids who browse school library shelves.  And the "Graphic Literature" category should promise more depth than a children's book. The Zoo Box may be graphic, but it is a stretch to call it literature. The only tie to comics is that the publisher, First Second Books, publishes mostly graphic novels.  My opinion is that it should have been nominated in the Children’s Books category.

I recently read the OBA judge's notes about this book. Gabriel Bell writes (my emphasis):
"This is a delightful, perfect children’s book. Two children misbehave and nearly unleash all kinds of unspeakable havoc on the world and themselves, but just barely manage to avert it. Not only that (spoiler alert:) they totally get away with it, which means they get to go to the zoo the next day and are never punished. Is this even allowed in children’s books? The artwork is masterful in its simplicity. The story is fun and playful, and likely to be a great delight to comics fans of a certain age."
I emphasize that she calls it a children's book, and it should have been judged within that category.

Bottom line: An enjoyable kids book, possibly mis-categorized as graphic literature.

This is the first book by Ariel Cohn and Aron Nels Steinke.

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