Thursday, February 20, 2014

Please Do Not Excite the Animals: Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo by John Lithgow

It's off to an orchestra concert in the park for a boy whose initial expectations are actually not all that high. Sitting next to his sister while violins fiddle and French horns tootle--how exciting can that be? And in fact, the sensory experience is indeed all too soporific!

The soft summer air was so balmy and sweet
And the program was running so long
That I found myself falling asleep in my seat.
Despite all the music and song.
But just as he's dozing off, fate steps in to change the scene:
Oh, children, remember, whatever you do.
Never play music right next to the zoo!
They'll burst from from their cages, each beast and each bird.
Desperate to play all the music they've heard!

The zoo critters storm the bandstand. The musicians, in long gowns and tuxedos, put up a good fight to hold on to their instruments. The tubby lady bassoonist wields a mean music stand in the face of the bear, but the zoo animals finally overpower them and take their places. While the goat makes short work of the sheet music for the staid numbers in the program, the hippo, who definitely has the lip for it, takes up the tuba and heads up the rhythm section.

The monkeys played fiddle, the bison played bass.
The percussion were manned by the camel.
The yak played the sax until red in the face,
A surprisingly musical mammal.

The animals have a blast, the grownups are enraptured, but the boy wonders with  horror  how the animals will be recaptured, in John Lithgow's latest picture book, Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Not to worry, though, as the boy finds himself emerging from a nice symphonic nap with all the human bandsmen right where they should be. But despite the oft-employed "it was all a dream" motif, Lithgow proves himself more able than the average celeb author to put over quatrains whose rhythm and rhymes, like those of Dr. Seuss, are an intrinsic part of the fun and appeal of the story. Leeza Hernandez (who did up the dandy dogs in Lithgow's earlier best-seller, I Got Two Dogs: (Book and CD)) provides the comic critters that supply the engaging visual fun for this story. Lithgow has a real knack for performing children's songs with just the right touch of sincerity spiced with irony, and does so again in the CD included in this book.

The introduction of the orchestral instruments makes this story a great lead-in to primary graders studying symphony music as well as zoo animals, both of which add to the uses for this jolly storytime treat. As Kirkus Reviews reports, "Move over, Carnival of the Animals (illustrated by Boris Kulikov, 2004); here's another snappy, yet lighter and younger, zoological fantasy to add to Lithgow's repertoire." For young symphonic sophisticates (savvy third graders, for example), pair this one with Lemony Snicket's terribly clever The Composer Is Dead. See my review here.)

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