Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook by Joanne Rocklin

This fun romp involves a cat named, Zook, who meows like a bull horn, "EE-OW! EE-OWEY!" so it be heard above all beings with a pulsating heart. Remember the wild-haired scientist Emmett who loved to shout "Gadzooks!" in the movie, "Back to the Future?" Zook's name makes me think of him and I picture the cat with wild eyes and hair sticking out like porcupine quills. But Zook's name comes from O'Leary's famous fried zucchini that was used to catch him. Yum, yum. Or yuck, yuck depending on your tastes. Oona, the wildly-wordy narrator, along with her loveable five-year-old brother Freddy, spews words like geysers. The two have made-up words, vernacular words, play-on words, big words, misspelled words, 1st grader words, long strung-together-like-on-a-string hyphenated words, and more. I think "pickapoo tree" is my favorite. Or maybe you like pittooee, frazzlebug, fiddle-i-fee, rowdies, playskool, wonnerful, yaba-blabba (second favorite), humongous, autodidact, rebus... you get the point.

So eat some taffy 'cuz this one's a laffy. Okay, that's lame... I'll leave the word-smithing to the rockin' Rocklin. Even if I can't smith a word (or is that sword? Never-mind), I can promise you laughter, strong characters, a layered plot with great details, and a delightful word bonanza. Ten-year-old Oona's cat, Zook, gets sick and has to go to the vet. Oona tells some whoppers to the people at the clinic as she tries to sneak Zook back home. Oona has The Rainbow Whopper Theory, meaning some of her whoppers or lies can vary from white whoppers (play on the word white lie) that means a person lies to make someone feel better to black whoppers (evil lies like the color black) that are meant to hurt. Then there is the fuzzy in-between blue, yellow, and red lies. It's like lies on a scale of 1 to 10. Oona tells her younger brother Freddy some white whoppers because she wants to protect him from feeling sad. Their father died two years ago and the family, including Zook, miss him terribly. Freddy doesn't have much of an appetite and Oona wears her dad's old Oakland Raiders sweatshirt... EVERY... SINGLE... DAY. Ew. She worries about Freddy and is more patient than most sisters.

When their mom starts dating another man, Oona notices her mom's "weird, chirpy voice." The problem is this man is the one Oona has named, "The Villian." He is the person who she thinks might have previously owned Zook. He's the man Oona thinks shot Zook with a BB gun. He's the man who is evil to animals and she doesn't want to have anything to do with him. But no one knows this because Oona removed Zook's name tag when she found him. She didn't want Zook returned to his previous cruel owner. This whopper is a tough one for Oona to deal with all by herself. When mom invites the Villian to dinner Oona is difficult and rude. Later, she realizes that her mom is happy and it is the Villian making her feel this way.

The amazing details, strong character voice, and humor are what hooked me. Take the previous paragraph where Oona is talking about observing her mom's happiness. "Happiness is all over her. Her fingers are happy, holding the fork to her happy mouth. Her elbows on the table are happy. Her shiny orange hair is shooting off happiness sparks, pulled up in a new happy hairstyle. And her eyes; her eyes are happy. I'm sad because I realize her eyes haven't looked like that for a long time. And it's the Villain who's making her feel that way." I laughed about her elbows feeling happy and the description of her red or strawberry-blond hair as orange. I found myself rooting for Oona and waiting for the next outrageous thing she would say or do.

Have you ever gone to a kids movie where there is adult humor and the kids don't get it but you do and you are laughing away while they look at you and hiss, "What's so funny?" This book has quite a bit of that. It would be a great read aloud because it entertains both adult and child. The theme of death is one that you'll want to discuss with your child and if they are going through the phase where they are afraid of death (age 8-10) then hold off reading this until they are older. At 200 pages it is a fairly quick read. Oona sounds too old for a ten-year-old in some spots but it is so funny I really don't care, such as when she describes the receptionist, "This one is wearing dangly, sparkly earrings with circles and spokes. They look like cat toys, and under normal circumstances I'd probably warn her about those earrings. Not the greatest fashion choice if you work around cats." Funny, but not the language of a kid. And Freddy would not be able to developmentally tell the story he does at the end because he is learning to read - only fluent readers can retell like that and normally they are not in kindergarten, but only a primary teacher is going to know that instead of the average reader. Plus, we'd loose the whole clever part where Oona teaches Freddy to read with rebuses. Freddy's made-up story is necessary in advancing the plot and showing how the characters change when telling stories to help them deal with loss, grow as individuals, and make sense of the world. It also shows how their father, The Great Rebus-Maker and Whopper-Teller lives on through them.

In an interesting twist at the end Oona finds out the truth about Zook's past and sweeps some whoppers out of her life. This is a story about stories, a story about words, a story about names. On the one side you have a serious storyline of loss and on the other side you have the joy and silliness of using made-up words and stories. It makes me want to be silly. Or spew sentences like Dr. Suess, "Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all!" Truly a winner.

Reading Level 4.6
4 out of 5 Smileys

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