Wordless Books

Welcome to the Zoo

Alison Jay

British artist Alison Jay is known particularly for the crackle-glaze varnish that gives her pictures such a distinctive look. She uses this technique in the wordless book Welcome To The Zoo to give an aged appearance to her paintings of a rather unusual type of zoo – one in which the reader isn’t sure if it’s the humans looking at the animals, or the animals looking at humans.

Welcome to the Zoo spread

In this atypical zoo, there are no cages or pens. In fact the boundaries between humans and animals are blurred, and we frequently see the action from the animals’ point of view. Each spread deserves ‘close looking’ as there are multiple storylines to follow and nothing is quite as you would expect. As they carry fish on a silver tray for the penguins, the zookeepers look more like waiters than animal custodians. They chase after a stray ostrich, scrub a hippo’s back in the pond, and wield a giant toothbrush to clean an elephant’s teeth. Meanwhile the animals are up to their own tricks – a giraffe eats a boy’s ice-cream, a seal smiles for the camera and a gorilla reads a newspaper.

The story opens with visitors arriving to pay for their tickets and enter the zoo through the gate. At first glance things appear relatively normal, but already heads of creatures can be seen poking through the boundary hedge to inspect the new arrivals, while in the background a zookeeper can be glimpsed pushing a gorilla along for a ride in a wheelbarrow. Turn the pages and you can follow the visitors on their journeys round the zoo, looking at, and interacting with, the various animals they meet. Often the visitors and animals are face-to-face, enjoying what appears to be a mutually animated conversation.

Welcome to the Zoo spread

The front endpaper is a map, and one of the many activities to do with this book is to trace the visitors’ paths through the zoo. Another is to spot all the visual jokes and to work out what’s real and what’s not. Are the penguins actually birds – or people, or balloons? Is that the end of a super-long snake the keepers are carrying? Is the bear really fishing in the pond? At the entrance gate we see a lady wearing a straw hat, which, as the wind begins to blow, soon flies off into the air. The game here is to find the hat in each image – and fortunately a lively poodle is on its trail to help us.

There is such a playful feel to these images that adults are likely to enjoy the book as much as children. And, as well as being fun, Alison Jay’s images are distinctive because they are so stylised. The figures are elongated, rounded in the middle with tiny heads and feet. The landscape sweeps around in pleasing curves, the trees are neat green blobs, and even the sizes of the creatures are not quite as they might be in the real world. Shadows are a prominent part of each picture, and the colour palette Jay uses is predominantly warm greens, oranges and browns, with contrasts of navy blue and black.

For another beautiful wordless book by Alison Jay, this time about the mysteries of the sea, see Out of the Blue (2014). There are also many other wordless titles that, like this one, show highly detailed scenes with multiple storylines, including Rundherum in meiner Stadt (1968) by Ali Mitgutsch (and others similar titles by the same artist), Full Moon Soup (1991) by Alastair Graham, and the recent The World of Mamoko series by Polish artists Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski.