Center for Children's Books
|The Big Picture, a
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The House of a Million Pets
by Ann Hodgman; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
There’s a long and venerable tradition of nonfiction animal tales in
literature for young people, from Ernest Thompson Seton’s more serious
accounts to the humor of Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family and Gerald
Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. There’s been an ebb in the genre
in recent years, despite the continued proliferation of animal-loving
youngsters, but now, with Hodgman’s pet-keeping chronicle, the critters
would seem to be happily, gloriously back.
And what a splendid catalogue of critters: “Hedgehogs. Dogs. Prairie
dogs. Cats. A baby owl. Dozens of canaries. A few parakeets. Regular
mice. Baby wild mice whom I fed from an eyedropper. A family of African
pygmy mice no bigger than a quarter. A family of seven rats who lived
in a big cage on my kitchen table. Several turtles who lived in my
bathtub. Ducklings who lived in a wading pool on my porch. A baby bat.
A vole. Sugar gliders . . . .” And so on. While Hodgman seems to avoid
animals larger than she is, that’s the only apparent limit to her
enthusiasm, and even insect fans and amphibian aficionados will find
representatives of their favorites in Hodgman’s menagerie. Her
affection shines through as she chronicles highs (the author’s
enthusiasm for pet rats is palpable) and lows (one chapter offers a
poignant overview of the experience of taking a pet to be put down),
experiences absurd (going to her grandfather’s memorial service with a
baby sugar glider snuggled in her bra) and tender (nursing a baby owl
and returning him eventually to the care of his mother); permeating all
the tales is a natural historian’s curiosity about animals and a family
member’s affectionate pride in their doings.
The petkeeper herself does play a considerable role in this book, but
that role is carefully managed: Hodgman’s part ranges from surrogate
child figure (“Being old is way better than being young,” she tells
young readers right up front, “because when you’re a grownup, no one
can keep you from doing what you want”) to straight man for her charges
both animal and human. Her tendency to directly address the reader
(“Put down this book and go get yourself a pet rat!”) seems a result of
her overflowing zeal for her subject and involves the audience further,
as does her cheerful championing of the slightly antisocial side of pet
ownership, whether it be the shock value of carrying a rat on your
shoulder or the pleasures of keeping animal cages in the kitchen.
There’s a touch of Betsy Byars in the rollicking humor, yet she’s
disarmingly honest about her own mistakes and follies, making herself
the butt of many situational jokes (the unexpected discovery that her
nonsense songs to her dogs have been overheard is one of the book’s
most hilarious moments). What’s more, she openly outlines times when
her mistakes or misplaced eagerness have been detrimental to her
animals, and she explicitly makes the point that most exotics and wild
animals are far better off in their natural habitat.
The witty and personable narrative gains additional utility from its
easily snackable formatting. Yelchin’s inky animal vignettes are
inviting, with a cheerful impudence in their scrawled lines that
perfectly matches the text. Brief chapters, usually treating a
particular species or an aspect of pet-ownership, offer some structure
and useful reading units, as do more focused sidebars on topics ranging
from “The Worst Things My Dogs Have Eaten” to “How to Cut a Rabbit’s
Nails in Thirteen Impossible Steps.” Overall, though, this is a happily
pell-mell account, as easy to read around in as it is to read
straightforwardly, and it’ll be a gem for reading aloud to a broad
range of age groups.
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover image by Eugene Yelchin from The House of a Million Pets ©2007.
Used by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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This page was last updated on November 1, 2007.