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  • Missing the Boat: Countee Cullen’s The Lost Zoo
  • Gillian Adams (bio)

We wear the mask that grins and lies. . . . We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To Thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh, the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise,   We wear the mask.

(Paul Laurence Dunbar)


That children’s literature as a genre contains, as part of its nature, a dual code system, the children’s code and the adult code, is generally accepted. But this double presence may be either accidental, and occur simply because the work is written by an adult, with adult assumptions, for that adult’s construction of a child audience, or it may be deliberate, a case of what Gary Morson calls “threshold literature.” 1 That is, a writer may create a work that is deliberately multiply coded for different audiences, creating, in Morson’s words, “an entire text of uncertain status” that will “exploit the resonance between two kinds of reading” (50). Such a work is The Lost Zoo (A Rhyme for the Young, But Not Too Young), by Christopher Cat and Countee Cullen, a major Black poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The Lost Zoo has proved to be of uncertain status for at least one white child reader, myself, and for those adults who initially mediate between the text and adult buyers and child readers, reviewers. Even more uncertain is its status for those other readers at whom it is directed—the [End Page 40]not too young” who are represented in the subtitle by italics. It is arguably the ambivalent nature of this work in terms of its audience, its genre, its possible readings, and the subtlety of its coded racial messages that has led to its neglect by those adults for whom it was in part intended, although it is still in print in an inexpensive edition for children.

The Lost Zoo, first published in 1940, is ostensibly about the animals that missed (and almost missed) Noah’s ark; it, and Cullen’s other published children’s book, My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942), have excited no extended critical comment, although there is a sentence or two about them in some of the books devoted to Cullen’s adult works and in a few general surveys of children’s books. 2 Cullen’s children’s books are not mentioned in the standard bibliographies of children’s literature scholarship such as The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Linnea Hendrickson’s A Guide to Children’s Literature Criticism, Children’s Literature Abstracts, and ERIC, or in the MLA Bibliography. The generally favorable reviews, two in 1940, nine in 1969–70, and two in 1992 are no more than brief paragraphs, if that. The one exception is the three paragraphs by Rosemary Benet in 1940 in the New York Herald Tribune Books section. Unlike the other reviewers, Benet recognizes that The Lost Zoo is more than a children’s book: “there is no hard and fast age group for this book. It is not entirely a juvenile. Rather, it will appeal to people, young or old, who like light verse about animals” (16). S.M.E.S. agrees thirty years later in a short note in Catholic Library World: “Children and adults will revel in this nonsense brought into being through the skillful writing of Countee Cullen” (385). In addition, The Lost Zoo has not been viewed as a part of mainstream African American children’s literature even by Blacks: Augusta Baker in her 1969 “Guidelines for Black Books: An Open Letter to Juvenile Editors” calls it “a beautiful sensitive book written by a black poet who wasn’t even thinking about race when he created this book” (qtd. in Haviland 114); and Dianne Johnson-Feelings in her 1990 study Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth dismisses it as “related in no way to an African American experience” (145 n. 3).

Perhaps one of the reasons for that dismissal of Cullen as a significant Black children’s author is due to the peculiar nature of his relationship to...