Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #7: The Zoo Box

Aron Nels Steinke has gone back and forth between autobio and kids' books during his career. His latest entry in the latter category, The Zoo Box, is undoubtedly his best effort in the genre to date. Co-written by his wife, Ariel Cohn, this book is both well-structured and anarchic. In other words, it's the perfect formula for children's lit. The formula for this book is simple and familiar: two kids left without adult supervision look for something fun to do and find a mysterious object and mess around with it. The resulting and escalating chaos plays out cleverly on the page, until the protagonists figure out a way to get things back to normal.

The way this particular set of hijinks plays out is that animal after animal emerges from a hatbox marked "Do Not Open". The kids don animal costumes in order to follow along, as the animals leave the house, wander through a forest and wind up at a very peculiar zoo. The animals aren't there to be exhibits, but rather to watch humans in zoo exhibits do things like play basketball, watch TV and mow the lawn. Things get weirder and weirder when they espy their own house in the zoo, and all of the animals there are wearing clothes. When they're found out by the animals that they are actually humans, a big chase scene and last-second solution to the problem arises.

The reason why this comic works so well is the storytelling rhythm that Cohn and Steinke establish. With four panels per page on most pages, with the occasional splash panel page popping up, the story is allowed to breathe and then the artists raise the stakes each time a splash panel crops up. The pages with four panels on them represent the guts of the narrative, where it's important to have a strong sense of time passing sequentially. The splash pages, on the other hand, do a nice job of representing the magic moment--that image that is indelibly frozen in time because of its sensory impact. By deftly mixing the two, Steinke and Cohn have crafted a narrative that can be sped through by a child but also lingered upon for maximum impact. Steinke's line is cartoony but not spare, with some nicely lush backgrounds. He doesn't go line-crazy in this story, instead relying on color to impart information. That made each of the pages clear and fluid, with few wasted lines. The artists have a central gag, a twist and a conclusion that puts the central gag to good use--and that's it. Every image and bit of dialogue ultimately serves the narrative, and the book is all the better for it.

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