The Dead Zoo by Peter Donnelly, Gill Books
Mr Gray is the owner of the Dead Zoo, which houses an extensive collection of stuffed animals from all over the world. He maintains order in his museum with a set of strict rules; no laughing, talking or running about, and most importantly, no touching the animals. Mr Gray prefers his exhibits to people and doesn’t have any friends, until a mischievous mouse moves in and turns his carefully curated universe upside down.
“Mr Gray was a serious man. He kept his tie perfectly straight, his moustache perfectly combed, and an important bunch of keys on his hip at all times.”
The Dead Zoo is a beautiful, bright and cheerful book, a clever and inventive story, and a wonderful celebration of the transformative power of friendship. Its message, about how crucial connections are, is especially relevant in a world where we can become isolated by technology as well as a pandemic.
Before he becomes friends with the mouse, even the stuffed animals seem more alive than Mr Gray. His skin is grey, his suit is grey, even his speech and thought bubbles are grey. By the end of the story, Mr Gray's unhealthy pallor has vanished and he is clearly a different person. He wears purple suits with a yellow flower on its lapel. The yellow ribbon on his hat is the same colour as the mouse. He is less serious, except for one fundamental rule: “NO touching the animals!"
Peter Donnelly's illustrations are extraordinary; extremely colourful and lively. Incredibly stylish, with a charming retro quality that evokes the 1950s, the images are refreshingly modern at the same time. The pages even feel gorgeous; matte and sturdy and lovely to turn.
The expressions and body language of Mr Gray and all the other characters, even the museum's exhibits, are terrific. Nothing is inanimate, not even the deceased animals on display. A tiger peers menacingly from a glass case, an elephant gazes serenely and a walrus rests contentedly. Mr Gray is hilarious as he chases the mouse, clenching his fists in frustration. The little mouse looks so cheeky and happy the whole way through, and I love how she clasps her hands in satisfaction after winning over Mr Gray.
It’s brilliant to see so much diversity in the children depicted, representing different ethnicities and reflecting contemporary Ireland. It's fantastic to see Dublin looking so attractive too. The aerial view of the museum and the streets surrounding it at the start of the book is particularly striking.
This the fourth book from Irish author and artist, Peter Donnelly, who has been an award-winning freelance illustrator for over twenty years. I've been a huge admirer of his work since The President's Glasses was a number one bestseller and shortlisted for an Irish Book Award in 2017. In 2018, its sequel The President's Cat was a winner at the Irish Book Awards, and he was shortlisted again in 2019 for The President's Surprise. The Dead Zoo has been shortlisted for the Specsavers Children's Book of the Year Award (Junior) in the 2020 Irish Book Awards. See the full list and cast your vote here.
This would make a fabulous gift for any child, whether living in Ireland or not, but will especially resonate with Irish children and Irish adults too. There isn't much text and the engaging illustrations make this suitable for a variety of ages, from babies up to six or seven. Older children who are familiar with the real-life Dead Zoo will appreciate it too.
For those not already acquainted with Dublin's Dead Zoo, it’s another name for Ireland’s Natural History Museum. I was so excited when I heard the supremely talented Donnelly had turned his attentions toward it, as it’s one of my favourite places. A beloved childhood memory involves an encounter with my very own Mr Gray!
An occasional daytrip to Dublin with my parents was a massive treat when I was growing up in Mullingar in the 1980s. We would visit the Dead Zoo, the Wax Museum, the Viking Village (while it was open), St Stephen’s Green and Hodges Figgis. Lunch was in the Bad Ass Café. There we marvelled at an apparatus which sent orders whizzing across the ceiling to the kitchen (I don’t know what it was called, and it’s gone now). We always stopped in Eason’s before getting the train home, where the extra-large stationery section was like an Aladdin’s cave to a small-town arts-and-crafts-obsessed girl.
Despite being terrified of spiders, a bird from Central America with an enormous, hairy arachnid in its mouth, was the highlight of an excursion to the Dead Zoo. On one visit, however, we were informed by a very surly attendant that the floor of the museum it lived on was closed to the public. Perhaps sensing our disappointment, or that we had come all the way from “the country," the attendant decided to take us to see it himself.
We were thrilled at being allowed to break the rules, and even more delighted later on when we encountered the attendant again on the street. He spotted us before we noticed him and as he passed by shouted, “Watch out for those spiders!” to our great amusement. The experience made a big impression on me and, over thirty years later, still makes me smile.
I haven’t taken my own children to the Dead Zoo yet, as they’re a little young. The three-year-old would probably enjoy it, but the five-year-old can sometimes be wary of stuffed toys, so I'll wait until they're slightly older. In the meantime, it’s fantastic to have this stunning picture book which will make our visit even more special when the time comes.