Don't Feed the Boyby Irene Latham, Stephanie Graegin
No kid knows more about zoo life than Whit. That's because he sleeps, eats, and even attends home-school at the Meadowbrook Zoo. It's one of the perks of having a mother who's the zoo director and a father who's the head elephant keeper. Now that he's eleven, Whit feels trapped by the rules and routine of zoo life. With so many exotic animals, it's easy to get
No kid knows more about zoo life than Whit. That's because he sleeps, eats, and even attends home-school at the Meadowbrook Zoo. It's one of the perks of having a mother who's the zoo director and a father who's the head elephant keeper. Now that he's eleven, Whit feels trapped by the rules and routine of zoo life. With so many exotic animals, it's easy to get overlooked. But when Whit notices a mysterious girl who visits every day to draw the birds, suddenly the zoo becomes much more interesting. Who is the Bird Girl? And why does she come by herself to the zoo?
Determined to gain her trust, Whit takes the Bird Girl on his own personal tour of the zoo. He shows her his favorite animals and what happens with them behind the scenes. For Whit, having a friend his own age that he can talk to is an exciting new experience. For Stella the Bird Girl, the zoo and Whit are a necessary escape from her chaotic home life. Together they take risks in order to determine where it is they each belong. But when Stella asks Whit for an important and potentially dangerous favor, Whit discovers how complicated friendshipand freedomcan be, in Irene Latham's Don't Feed the Boy.
“Don't Feed the Boy is a delightfully satisfying blend of action and emotion, tension and heart. Everyone should have a best friend like Whit.” Kathryn Erskine, National Book Award–winning author of Mockingbird
“Feed this to animal fans.” Kirkus Reviews
“This is solid storytelling.” School Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
1 FIELD STUDY
Whit waited for the toucan to turn its head before he stepped past the iron gate. He’d lived his whole life at the Meadowbrook Zoo, and until today he’d never disobeyed the three basic rules his parents set for him:
1. Don’t feed the animals.
2. Schoolwork comes first.
3. Don’t leave the zoo property for any reason.
He’d done everything that was expected of him. He hadn’t fed the animals, even though Whit knew what treats they liked and had full access to the animal kitchens. He did all the reading and reports his home-school teacher, Ms. Connie, assigned, often ahead of schedule. And he had never even tried to leave the zoo, even though he was unattended much of the time and could have easily snuck away. And how he’d wanted to sneak away, especially in the past few months.
As he passed a family of four who were plotting how to hit all of the major animal shows in one visit, his legs resumed a more natural stride. He didn’t dare look back at the gate. Because the gate would only remind him of the zoo rules, and if he thought about the rules, he might lose his courage. Better to let it all fade away: the rules, his parents, the gate, the animals.
Not that the exotic animals weren’t interesting. They were fascinating. Some of them were even cute. But none of them made very good friends. And Whit was convinced that he was missing out on something important by spending his whole life stuck at the zoo. Or, someone important. Like the Bird Girl. If ever there was a reason to rewrite the rules, it was her.
As a line of dusty vehicles pulled into the zoo driveway, Whit turned toward the cluster of pine trees that marked the end of the parking lot and the beginning of the Picnic Pavilion. He could just see the Bird Girl claiming a spot at one of only two empty tables.
He took a deep breath. It seemed silly to him that his parents considered the Picnic Pavilion off-property. Technically it was still the zoo.
As he dodged sticky-fingered children on his way toward her, he pressed his lips together. That’s the argument he would use if he got caught. Because off-property or not, Whit didn’t care. He had to meet the Bird Girl. She had been coming to the zoo for six days in a row now. Six! He couldn’t let another one pass without at least introducing himself.
He pushed his shoulders back. Walking up to someone and saying “Hi, my name is Whit” was only difficult because he so seldom had the opportunity to make new friends. Yes, he was surrounded by people every day, and his parents worked hard to provide “socialization” by inviting zoo employees to bring their families to the annual Spring Picnic and Holiday Gala and the Fall Apart Party that marked the end of the busy summer season. But that was only three times a year. And Whit was pretty sure real friendships were formed over daily rubbery hotdogs in the lunchroom or weekly sleepless sleepovers.
As he stood near the Bird Girl’s table, he thought she was only the most interesting creature he had ever seen. She was different—that was clear from the very first day. For one thing, she always came alone. That all by itself was unusual. Most people came to the zoo with their families. And she always wore the same cut-off jeans and plain white T-shirt that draped almost to the edge of her shorts. Whit imagined it must belong to the missing father, or maybe a brother. Or maybe she just wasn’t the kind of girl who cared about clothes.
He fumbled in his pocket for his digital recorder, glad that Ms. Connie had insisted he carry it with him for those “unexpected adventures” she got especially excited about. And the little machine really was handy. He pressed the green button and whispered, “June 8, 11:00 a.m.” He remembered the morning’s weather report on Channel 6. “Stage 2 drought. Subject tucks hair behind her ears and unzips backpack.”
The recorder clicked as Whit took his finger off the button. A few minutes had passed and he was still successfully blending in with the guests. He glanced back toward the zoo gate, not exactly sure what he had expected would happen when he broke the rule. Alarm bells clanging? Zoo security rushing to collect him? He’d never imagined he could slip out so easily.
He drummed his fingers on the table. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. The Bird Girl was right there, at the next table over. This was his chance. And instead of leaping across the table, he was mired in a strange sense of disappointment. He’d left the zoo, and no one had noticed. There should have been driving sheets of rain, booming thunder, and vibrant streaks of lightning. Heck, his disobedience should be enough to end the drought completely.
Instead, there wasn’t a cloud in sight. Which put the count up to fifty-two days without rain. Not that the whole drought business mattered all that much to Whit. It was just part of his summer assignment.
“A field study,” Ms. Connie said when she’d given him the instructions on the last day of May. “Pick any animal, any one you want. Think about the drought, how it affects the animal. Make a prediction. Then watch and record.”
Whit grinned as the Bird Girl pulled a black notebook from the backpack. Ms. Connie may have been his teacher since he was four years old, but she’d still be impressed when she found out he’d picked a human instead of one of the 750 animals in the zoo collection. She was always encouraging him to get creative with his assignments. “Make it your own,” she said. As if there was any other way.
Whit’s fingers found the button on the recorder. He was all for making the project fun. “Subject places notebook in lap, pulls out pencil pouch.” He made his voice sound whispery and firm, like one of those golf sportscasters on TV. “I predict we will become friends.”
His prediction didn’t have a thing to do with the drought, but it was a start. The Bird Girl didn’t seem to be affected by the drought at all. Come to think of it, neither did most of the animals at Meadowbrook Zoo. Probably because the staff worked so hard to keep the animals fed and watered. Even with current water usage restrictions, the landscaping staff somehow managed to keep the zoo grounds lush and attractive.
Whit held his breath as the Bird Girl folded back her sketch pad, opened her red pouch, and chose a fresh pencil. When she touched the pencil to the tip of her tongue, same as she had done every morning since the start of summer vacation, Whit’s heart began to thump like a rabbit’s foot.
Every day was the same. The Bird Girl started back inside the zoo at the bench in front of Flamingo Island. She watched for a while, and then she began to draw. Once that pencil touched the paper, it was like she wasn’t even aware of anything else in the world. Every move seemed to have such purpose.
He held his hand over his mouth so no one would see or hear him talking into his recorder. “Subject appears to be drawing pigeons.”
Pigeons. That was new. But it made sense, because the Picnic Pavilion was where those pudgy birds liked to hang out.
Unlike the animals inside the fence, guests could feed the pigeons. And they did, all the time. Whit’s mother, who was a veterinarian before she became the zoo director, said those pigeons were getting so fat that soon they wouldn’t even be able to fly. Not that they needed to with the corners of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being thrust at them so many times a day.
Whit gripped his digital recorder as he dared move toward her table. As he settled onto the bench across from her, the Bird Girl shifted in her seat. Her head was no longer bent over the sketch pad. Instead it was like a scene in a movie, as if the camera had cut away for a second, and now it was back with a close-up shot that filled the screen. The Bird Girl’s dark eyes were staring straight at him.
Text copyright © 2012 by Irene Latham
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Stephanie Graegin
Meet the Author
Irene Latham is a poet and novelist who lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama. Her debut novel Leaving Gee's Bend was named a Bank Street College Best Book, a SIBA finalist, a Crystal Kite Finalist and ALLA's Children's Book of the Year. As a child she dreamed of being a zoo veterinarian and even trained as a teenage zoo volunteer. All it took was observing one surgery to convince her that perhaps she'd better just write about the animals instead. Stephanie Graegin received her BFA in Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking from Pratt Institute. Stephanie lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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What 11 year-old kid wouldn’t LOVE to live in a zoo??? Whit Whitaker, that’s who! Whit did not like living in a zoo, but he had no choice. His mom was the zoo director and his dad was the elephant keeper, but his parents seem more interested in the animals than him. Whit hated living at the zoo. He wasn’t allowed to go out of the zoo at all. He was even home schooled (or is that zoo schooled?) right in the zoo by a tutor. Whit didn’t have any friends and parents that didn’t know he existed most of the time. Whit notices a girl that comes and draws pictures of the birds at the zoo. He sees her almost every day and decides to talk to her. Whit and Stella (the Bird Girl) start meeting every day at the zoo and become good friends. Whit learns that Stella’s father abuses her family through violence and she comes to the zoo to get away from her home. Whit wants to help his friend, but helping her may get him into a lot of trouble. This was not the usual action adventure story I love to read. In fact here wasn’t much action and maybe just a little adventure, but I really liked the story. I cared about what happened to Stella. I wanted Whit’s parents to pay attention to him. They were both great characters. Ms. Latham’s writing style really let me get to know the characters. I liked that they both needed each others friendship and they helped each other. The story had a strong message about abusive families (both kids had abusive families, although Stella’s was a violent one and Whit’s parents just didn’t pay attention to him). There was some cool stuff about all the behind the scenes at the zoo in the book when Whit shows Stella around. I really enjoyed reading about that. Although the book talks about abusive families, it is written really well for kids. I was sad I found some editing errors in the book (misplaced periods, a couple of places Whit’s name wasn’t capitalized), but I liked the story so much I didn’t think about that when I gave the book my rating. I recommend this book to kids 10+ only because it deals with the subject of abuse. **NOTE I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I was drawn in by the main character, Whit, and felt an emotional connection to this story from the beginning. Always a definite plus for any good book. Why kids will love it - The emotions of Whit and Stella are common for many tweens. Readers may understand things in their own lives better by reading how Whit and Stella deal with their own unique situations. For kids that have grown up going to the zoo, reading about what happens behind the scenes might interest them. What I learned as a writer - The voice of this book is perfect. The dialogue between Whit and Stella is so important to the book and so believable. I also felt the secondary characters were brought to life and developed, not just thrown in to make the story work.