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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

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

 

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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.