The Zoo has once more closed for the evening and all have left the park. Except for the animals of course. And once again the Midnight Revue Payers have gathered to perform a play of epic proportions, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for all to see. Romeo, the brave but cocky rooster, and Juliet the brave and adorable bear have met and long to be together. But they are from opposite worlds, as Romeo is from a petting zoo. Safe and protected. And Juliet is from the wild, where they must fend for themselves. Their communities try to keep them apart, but the two heroes will not be deterred!
OK the opening two pages of this book are a study in how to keep the start to a good story simple. We see a single panel of the a keeper locking up and leaving for the evening. And on the next page a giraffe steals her keys. And that’s it. We get to take it from our imaginations with what happens next. And yes this is the second volume in a series and the writer and artist are assuming that we already know a bit about the Stratford Zoo but…it doesn’t matter. At all. Because these two scenes allow us to imagine everything we want about the story and that’s the best part of things. We can imagine that the giraffe gives the keys to say the monkeys who go around freeing everyone. Which then allows us to imagine that animals can put on a play! And we’re instantly sucked in. Which is fantastic!
One of the things that I struggled the most with in school was reading plays. Any play, but Shakespearean plays were always the worst. I had trouble figuring out which character was speaking, how scenes fit together, and words always got jumbled in my head. And it also didn’t help that we’re talking about different cultures and worlds that have changed since the original plays were written. Some things, like MacBeth, kinda of stand the test of time. But others, like Romeo and Juliet, about warring families start to lose something in the translation. Not that there aren’t warring families or rival gangs, but its becoming harder and hard for young people to relate to that type of comparison (which honestly is a good thing. So in this adaptation explores a different route to give us the same meaning. He could have gone the route of hibernation vs non hibernators or carnivores vs herbivores, but instead he gives us safe zoo vs the unsafe wild. Which honestly is a bold and refreshing choice, because it gives readers something that they can understand. The original play’s class distinctions make less sense these days and other adaptations that feature class or race can be tricky in today’s world. But by talking about farm vs wild it allows readers to focus on what really matters, that the two characters come for different environments and that these two environments don’t get along. They don’t have to have a history lesson is warring families or rival gangs, but can instead instantly understand the difference. The other change that he makes that I like, is that the main characters don’t take poison together. Instead, it’s hibernation. Something that a zoo animal (and a roster certainly ever) does. By using something that kids are already semi-familiar with, it puts things into a different light. They’re able to understand the sacrifices and choices that have to be made and they get to see the pain that it’s going to cause the families. They also get to imagine, what happens now? Do they hibernate for years? Do they wake up to find the world changed? It’s something that the reader gets to imagine and maybe, make the changes that they want to see in the world. While Ian does tone down some of the darker aspects of the play, given that the book is for younger readers, he captures its essence and message perfectly.
As an additional bonus in the story, Ian adds an overarching story that is taking place in the audience, between two…friends? A young lamb and a young monkey. They argue throughout the play about nothing in particular, just that type of argument you have when you’re young that you aren’t going to be friends with someone anymore because they did something that you can’t remember but you know you didn’t like. And as they watch the play, they start to understand that maybe there’s something about differences that in the end…don’t matter. And maybe they can learn from each other. It’s not a romantic thing at all, just two friends learning what the play does teach.
I’ve been a huge fan of Zack Giallongo’s art since his previous First Second book, Broxo, and his illustrations in this book made me fall even more in love with his art. While Ian crafts the perfect words for his characters, Zack brings them to life, capturing their expressions and movements perfectly. Given that the two main characters are a rooster and a bear, there could have been….well issues with how the roster is drawn. I mean seriously. A rooster. It’s not exactly the most majestic creature on the planet is it? But look at the way Zack draws him on the front cover. Bam. That’s something special right there…even with the cheesy hearts above his head. He looks like a rooster, but is expressive. Is able to wear clothes (which are part of the play) and not look goofy as all getout. Zack should also be commended for making the more violent acts of the play into something a bit more cartoony with well placed animals blocking the view when needed.
Also, I don’t know if it was Zack or Ian, but I love the two old vultures in the audience. They remind me of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets. They get to watch the play, but have some fun with their conversation between each other about growing old and being…well vultures. It’s just a great little side gag that make you giggle everytime you see them.
If you’re looking for a literary analysis or think that Shakespeare has no humor, please look elsewhere. On the other hand if you’re looking for something fun to introduce Shakespeare to younger readers, 5th grade and up, forge ahead! Older readers will enjoy the humor and new look at Macbeth as well. In fact, I think this book would work perfectly in a high school setting, helping students understand that Shakespeare does have humor to it, and that it can be fun and enjoyable to read. I give the book five out of five stars and I can’t wait to read the next volume in the series.
ARC provided by Gina at First Second