Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Danger at the Zoo, by Kathleen Ernst

My daughter loves Nancy Drew mysteries, except for the whole suspense part. When listening to them read aloud she will plug her ears if things get too scary (and "too scary" includes any character experiencing the disappointment of another character), and when reading them to herself, she'll just skip ahead. When we were leaving Kansas, a friend of our gave my daughter three American Girl mystery books featuring Kit Kittredge. My daughter took a look at the first one, entitled Danger at the Zoo, and declared they were too scary, reasoning, "It has the word 'danger' in the title."

To help ease her past this, I decided to read one of them with her. This was the first time we'd read a book together. Previously when "we" were reading a book, I was reading aloud and she was doing eight other things while she was supposedly listening, and then she would infuriate me by being able to tell me exactly what was going on. (This from the man who reads books while singing sacrament hymns. I guess getting bored and entertaining ourselves runs in the family.) For this book, however, we took turns reading a page at a time.

I was expecting to dislike this book because it is tied to a product line. In my experience, these types of books are nothing more than 70-page long advertisements, sort of like most Saturday-morning cartoons; product placement comes first and story comes second (or, as Austin Powers would say, sometimes not at all!). I was pleasantly surprised that this book didn't read that way at all. The book was about a girl, and aside from the postcard stuck in the back that advertised the American Girl catalog (which postcard was quickly discarded, since I don't need to spend $80 on a doll that's lost in the Uncanny Valley), there was no shilling associated with this book.

What's more, the story was actually pretty good. It was the right amount of mystery for the target age group (ages nine and above); no one was going to die, but instead Kit was investigating a possible band of "unscrupulous black-market monkey thieves." (I told our kids, "If I were in a band, I'd call us The Unscrupulous Black-Market Monkey Thieves." They said, "What would your song be called?" I said, "Kit Kittredge." They said, "How would it go?" I sang, "Kit Kittredge! Yea!")

Yet another nice thing about this book is the fact that it's set in the Depression, and instead of sitting around being bitter about what they don't have, the Kittredges are focused on trying to help other people who have even less. How did a modern American toy manufacturer finance a book like this? Is someone asleep at the wheel over at American Girl?

Anyway, by the middle of the book my daughter was excited when it was time to read together. She dealt with her fear by skipping ahead and reading the last chapter, so she'd know that everything turned out okay. She might even read the other two books on her own (although she says one of them has a cover that's too scary).

One of the characters is a young hobo Kit's family knows named Will. I was very glad I paid strict attention during the hobo chapters (yes, more than one) of The Areas of My Expertise, as it was good preparation for all the hobo-ocity that takes place in this book.

I'm glad we read this book together, and I would read more Kit Kittredge books with my daughter.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

1 comment:

  1. It's nice to know that the book wasn't just an American Girl catalog "with words" (as my kids say). I have to say that we've seen all the American Girl movies and they're much like you described. They're great family entertainment that's age appropriate, teach history and how kids were affected by it, and are generally entertaining. I would recommend any of them.

    Having said that, I have also set foot in the alternate universe known as the American Girl store in NY. They have a salon, restaurant (reservations must be made 6 months in advance to "eat" with your doll), hospital, photo shoot that puts you and your doll on the cover of a "magazine", and the list goes on.

    They have little slips of paper with pictures of each item for sale for you to take to the register to purchase. My kids were happy to collect the slips of the items they liked and then leave the store. They hated us.

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