Wednesday 10 October 2012

Happy Birthday Dear Zoo!

We are big fans of Rod Campbell's books in our house, so we were delighted to be invited by the lovely people at Pan Macmillan to Dear Zoo's 30th Birthday party at the end of August. We were treated to a live performance of the book (complete with zookeeper), activities for the kids, and most excitingly, a chance to meet and question Rod Campbell himself.

Rod used to be a scientist, and still has the rather unassuming demeanor of one. In his late thirties, he made a dramatic career change to pursue his interests as an artist. Soon after Dear Zoo was born... (What a lesson in following your dreams!) He told us that back then, there were no really interactive books and so his lift-the-flap designs were both educational and very original. He talked about the importance of repetition on books, and putting features such as flaps in for a clear purpose not just for a gimmick. His philosophy has clearly worked. 30 years on, kids still love his simple and endearing images and characters, and Dear Zoo alone has sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Not only do most of Culturebaby's little buddies have a copy of the book too, but several of them count it amongst their favourites. We asked Rod whether Dear Zoo is his favourite amongst the books he has written. He said: "That’s a very good question. If I was to ask you which of your children you prefer, of course you wouldn’t be able to answer that and I feel the same about my books. I am obviously very attached to all of them but the last book you have written is always a special one." We actually agree. His latest book is the rather fabulous Spin and Say, which we review below.

 Anyway, we were so excited about meeting Rod, and receiving a parcel of his books from Pan Macmillan to review, that we invited our local friends to a themed Dear Zoo birthday tea party. Culturebaby's buddies dressed up, the older children took part in Dear Zoo themed activities and we tested out and discussed Rod's books (including some we've had in our collection for a while), compared our favourites, ate cake, and a couple of Culturebaby's (very happy) buddies won signed copies of Dear Zoo. We had a fantastic afternoon, concluded that, in fact, there is nothing cuter than an 11 month old in a lion outfit, and got some great thoughts from other mummies on the books...

First of all we had a selection of books from the Dear Zoo family. It emerged that there are many many things our little tea party attendees love about this classic lift-the-flap board book, in which a zoo sends the reader presents of a number of inappropriate pets (hidden behind baskets and boxes) and finally ending with a puppy. Simply described by one mother as "a brilliant, brilliant book", another said that it cleverly "uses all the things that children like: repetition, lifting flaps, lovely colours, great illustrations and simplicity" (the noisy and touch-and-feel versions also add textures and sounds to this list). Another mum said "I like the idea that children can connect certain behavioural qualities with each animal". A few months ago, Culturebaby clearly wanted something more than just touchy feely and board books, so we introduced Dear Zoo and other lift the flap books. She loved them and can regularly be found selecting them herself from her book baskets and investigating them alone as well as reading them with me. She is also really starting to recognise the characters in other contexts such as museums and in film clips. We were therefore very excited to meet the other members of the Dear Zoo family:

  1. A noisy version - This is great, the sounds are very realistic and the book is the classic lift-the-flap version. There are some additional games and questions at the back, which were a hit with the mums and slightly older children. One mum said that the sounds transform the book into an activity - matching animals and learning noises - and is fantastic for reluctant listeners. It's also clever that the animals are not in the same order as in the book, making matching more of a challenge. One word of warning: the pages are thinner. This means it is a little trickier for babies. Can we have a sturdy board book version next please?
  2. Touch-and-feel Dear Zoo - this is a new addition, and we think a very welcome one. We discussed that what the book loses with the flaps, it gains in appeal for younger babies who need textures and cannot yet manage flaps. It is also a brilliant introduction to the classic book. One mum noted: "Of the Dear Zoo books, this was my 11 month old's first choice - the textures added a new element to keep his attention for longer." Culturebaby is also a big fan of this book. Her favourite is the ingenious hole in the lion's mouth. She finds it hilarious when I either stick my finger through it as a lion's tongue, or snap up her fingers from behind the page. It's a brilliant addition  - as are the sticky frog's toes!
  3. Dear Zoo Animal Shapes pram book - this is a lovely bright little pram book, which has cut out shapes for all the animals in the classic book, making it easier for babies to flick through them.
  4. The Dear Zoo Activity Book - A mum with older children described this as a brilliant idea, building on the book to provide a range of fab activities for pre-schoolers and upwards. The children from age 2 to 4 had great fun with the similar activity sheets we had for the day. You can download these here.
  5. Dear Zoo Little Library - this miniature set was in our goody bag from the 30th birthday party and has been a favourite with Culturebaby ever since, who is really into tiny books at the moment as they are easy to hold, flick through and transport. This lovely set has a much wider range of animals, covering pets and wild animals as well as colours and counting in the same appealing simple and colourful style... (though Culturebaby does get confused that the little colour book has no flaps - we caught her pawing at the pages in search of them!) One mum noted that a set like this would be great for 'reading' to dolls...We have yet to encounter the bizarre world of teddy bears' picnics...

"Yes, yes", you say, "we have and love Dear Zoo. Tell me something new..."

Fortunately, Rod's been pretty busy over the last thirty years. Here's our pick of 5 other great Campbell books:
  1. Buster's Farm - We LOVE this book; it has it all! Touchy feely bits and flaps to discover as a little boy named Buster takes us on a trip round a farm. Culturebaby regularly goes for this book first. Not only does this book teach babies what they will see on a visit, but it also gives directions (encouraging movement) and asks simple questions. I'm told there is also a wonderful Zoo version, and also further titles in the Buster series.
  2. Noisy Farm - This recent lift-the-flap book by Campbell was a real hit with the mums. They loved how the children were able to predict both what is hidden behind the flap but also, from the clue, what might be waiting on the next page. We concluded that this was a fantastic book that can be used over and over as developmental needs change - from identification of animals, through to hide and seek, then counting. One mum said her son squealed with delight when he found the dog hidden on each page.
  3. Oh Dear! - First published in 1983, Oh Dear! is a classic in its own right, and a favourite in several of our guests' households. One mum said that her kids love to look through this themselves, anticipate and make the animal noises and shout out 'Oh Dear!'.
  4. Farm 123 - We found this great book a few months ago as part of a set with a beautiful wallchart. It is a lovely first counting book as some of the animals are to be discovered behind flaps, providing an activity whilst the child is counting. We already use this book as it is also a very good introduction to farm animals and has lots to touch and find.
  5. Finally, Rod's latest production: Spin and Say - This original take on a first words book provides a central wheel with arrow, which can be spun by a baby, and contains a selection of themes such as counting, colours and noises. The babies were intrigued by the dial, and it is clear that this book could be used across various ages. One mum chose this as her absolute favourite of the selection.
Phew. That'll do. Rod -We salute you! We look forward to what you have up your sleeve next. For anyone looking for a lasting pressie for a baby or thinking of having a themed party; look no further... we'd highly recommend the dear old zoo.

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