In Curious George Learns the Alphabet, “Z is a Zebra Zipping along with Zest.” The best part is H.A. Rey’s illustration of the letter Z in the form of a prancing, smiling zebra (zipping with zest). Letters coming to life in the form of the word they represent are a hallmark of the entire book.
Anyone who reads alphabet books to their children knows that Z is for zoo and for zebra, just as X is for xylophone and x-ray. American middle class children learn about zebras long before they ever see one, unless they live in a place with a first-rate zoo. Going to the zoo is a childhood rite of passage, either on a school trip or with one’s family, but not all zoos have zebras. And the idea of the zoo has come under scrutiny since I was a child, as the ethics of retaining animals in captivity are debated.
Still, in the world of children’s books, Z is for zebra and also for zoo. Something about the illustrations of H.A. Rey draws the reader in, hypnotized by the happy animals and their jaunty human tenders. I still remember the feeling of mystery reading, or having read to me, the fold-over books by H.A. Rey. In Feed the Animals, we are presented with pictures of cramped cages or lots, with cement floors and a smattering of hay, unlike the better zoos of today where animals have larger habitats that are intended to come closer to the wilds of their origins. The empty cage or yard transforms when the reader opens the half page for a new picture, of the animal happily eating its dinner—steak for the caged lion, fish tossed to the smiling seals, chewy greens for the hippo.
I have written a lot this month about the enchanted quality of childhood memories, whether of places, books, or experiences that retain a sense of mystery or magic in my imagination. I wonder what I have passed on to my own children, who are now teenagers, but whose childhood memories include H.A. Rey books, back yard birthday parties, swimming in lakes and capsizing canoes whose aluminum sides reflect yellow on our faces, and other hallmarks of my own childhood. Are all our childhoods imbued with magic and mystery, those of us lucky enough to live in relatively peaceful and properous times and places? How do these childhood memories shape us, our thinking lives and our dreaming lives, our active lives when we bump up against something new and unaccounted for? Do we have established imaginative frameworks to build on with new information, or at some point are the frameworks torn down and rebuilt in new forms?
What do my children think of when they think of Z? What will they think of when they are as old as me?