If I Ran the Zoo - A Mind Blowing, Nerdy Dr. Seuss Classic

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Stumbling upon a good Dr. Seuss book is not exactly a surprise, but for me this book was.

A double surprise, in fact.

OK, enough stalling - I'll give it away.

Some books elude me.

Yep, I never come across them.

To make it worse, I only hit upon this little gem by chance.

And I am ashamed.

Yep, I never read it, never heard about it and never saw it in my life. (There, I confessed).

How did I find out about this Dr. Seuss classic?

Well, in our home library we have many amazing books authored and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, but two of them are special in their own certain way.

Those two books (I'll tell you their names later) by Van Dusen have a certain "Je ne sais quoi" to them, but I could never identify the source of their mysterious allure.

So, yadda, yadda, yadda, many years passed and one day I opened this magical creation by Dr. Seuss.

I ordered "If I Ran the Zoo" to widen our collection of Seuss masterpieces, but I truly did not know anything about it.

OK, it arrives and I just popped it into the library and forgot all about it.

Months - or even a year - pass.

One day, I pulled this Dr. Seuss classic out of the shelf and read the first page about a young boy who decides to visit the zoo.

The book seems nice, not too wacky  (as Dr. Seuss books sometimes are, I have to say).

And then on the second page, the young boy said:

"But if I ran the zoo, ... I'd make a few changes. That's just what I'd do"


Wait a moment, this is so familiar I thought to myself.

And then ... it hits me.

We've read this 'story' before.

Dr. Seuss's book reminded me of Chris Van Dusen's If I Built a Car and If I Built a House, two little treasures that we have in our home library.

These little Van Dusen gems are amazing creations that will blow your mind with their art and invention.

They are stories about the potential that a young boy sees in everyday objects such as a car and a house.

We know what houses and cars like, right?

But they could be soooo much better, if a child was given the licence to improve them, to design them.

In fact, dare I admit, I prefer the Van Dusen books to the original Dr. Seuss classic, but only because the stories have more structure to them.

Hence, if I were to advise you - I would say take If I Built a Car and If I Built a House first, as I think today's kids can relate to them better.

But the fundamentals are the same.

There is a very important point being presented in these books.

And it is not just a small point that Van Dusen and Dr. Seuss are making.

It is more than that.

Children's opinions matter. 

We need to consult children more often. They have points of view that are being ignored all the time.

Adults often treat kids as not deserving, when children frequently have better ideas.

And these are not empty words, I am always surprised by my twins and their unexpected suggestions, incredible ideas and witty retorts.

Imagination cannot be taught.

That is why these books are so amazing for children.

Imagine your kids a toy magic wand and then telling them that the wand is real.

The "If I .... "books pay homage to children's minds and imaginations.

Adults cannot think up anything half as fabulous as a child can.

While we are limited by our knowledge, children are not. They see much more potential in the reality that surrounds them.

We see structure, children see disorder from which they can immediately generate a better - more entertaining - order.

We see the immediate world around us, children see the universe.

Yes, there is a lot of stuff that we can learn from our children.

But back to Seuss.

Wipe The Slate Clean

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo because it contravenes the logic of many children's picture books.

Often grown-ups try to teach children about the ways of the world or the achievements of historical figures or traditions that we adults instituted (and children are supposed to follow slavishly).

If I Ran the Zoo takes all that fine tradition and ... throws it out of the window.

This is a book that introduces an institution like the zoo on the first page and then throws it out of the window on the second when young Gerald McGrew starts telling us what a real zoo should look like.

Gerald explains - lions and tigers are all right, but one can see such wild beasts in any kind of zoo.

The boy is not out to tweak and fine-tune.

Gerald does as children do best - he unleashes a tsunami of fresh creativity and ideas.

Everything is possible in the Dr. Seuss world.

Children will adore the concept of a child running the zoo, as Gerald does not merely want to run a zoo.

He does not accept a typical zoo as a starting point and tweak some little improvements into it.

No, no.

Gerald starts by doing what every child wants.

He unlocks every door, he opens every cage and then Gerald sends out all the animals in order to start reinventing the zoo from scratch.

That's an amazing philosophy when you think about it and children can easily identify with it.

Children are always ready to break through barriers and to look at things upside down, sideways and inside-out.

Gerald starts assembling the craziest menagerie ever seen.

He looks for lions with ten feet for his new McGrew Zoo, he searches for unique hens that roost in another hen's top-knot.

But that is just the start as Gerald plans to bring dozens and dozens of new animals to populate his unique new zoo.

From Elephant-Cats to entire families of What-do-you-knows!

From deer with connected horns to scraggle-foot Mulligatawnies.

From fine Iotas to tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurkas.

The blast of ideas and crazy creations would fascinate Charles Darwin, as evolution is clearly no match to Seuss's fervent imagination!

Surprise Vocabulary Lesson

Being nerdy just means being passionate about something
Zachary Levi

Here is a very interesting titbit for the nerds among us (me included).

Did you know that If I Ran the Zoo is also famous for being the first documented appearance of the word "nerd"?

Yes, indeed, look at the image on the side - that is the first ever documented nerd in the world!

Not surprisingly, Dr. Seuss's overflowing imagination also left a permanent imprint on the English language and whenever I hear the word "nerd", I remember this little classic children's book.

A few months ago I read aloud Andrew Clement's classic kid-gets-into-trouble-at-school book Frindle in which my twins learned about the nearly impossible way to invent a new word that can become part of the English language.

Aside from being a great read-aloud, Frindle was an eye-opener to all of us, as we learned that languages constantly evolve and get enriched. There is no method to it, no plan.

Just like life happens, vocabulary happens.

People adopt new words because they serve a new purpose, they satisfy a need that appears that moment.

While Frindle was a fictional tale of an invented word that exploded onto the scene, If I Ran the Zoo is a real life example of how languages evolve and incorporate new words.

So read If I Ran the Zoo as soon as possible, because I don't believe that you will come across a more enjoyable English language lesson anytime soon!

And then brainstorm together with your little one on the topic of "If I Ran the School!" or "If I Ran the Kindergarten", you will certainly be amazed at the ideas you hear.

Finally, if you dare, ask your kid about his or her ideas on "If I Ran This Home" and tell me what they said!

PS: This book was published more than half a century ago and it has parts that would not be acceptable in a modern children's book - such as the following unfortunate quote about Asian characters that appear in the story: "With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant..."

There are also a few other lingering racial stereotypes, so please be warned. For example, "And eight Persian Princes will carry the basket, But what their names are, I don't know. So don't ask it." 

If I Ran the Zoo can be found from book stores:

The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

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