Cubs in the Tub
The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper
Words by Candace Fleming
Illustrations by Julie Downing
Helen Martini hoped and waited for the day she would become a mother. And hoped and waited, but it never came. Instead a tiny lion cub comes home with her zookeeper husband because his mother rejected him. Helen tends to him until he’s a rambunctious big cub and he has to go. Then come the baby tigers, but when they get too big for the house she knows they still need her and finds her own way to keep caring for them.
I had never heard of Helen Martini’s story before, and I love how lively and engaging it reads. It makes a great cuddle-up-and-read book. What kid doesn’t like the idea of having a lion or tiger in their house tugging on shoelaces or snuggling on their lap?
It also can open up discussions on properly caring for animals and pets, on zoos and their history, on doing the right thing even if others don’t understand, and on being flexible when dreams don’t go the way we want them to.
The artwork is beautiful. It’s soft, both the colors and the lines, which helps to accentuate the fuzzy softness of the young animals. And it’s warm, giving the feeling of being wrapped up and cared for – which pairs with Helen’s story.
The choice to have several pages with multiple pictures shows off the action and wonder and worry of Helen, her husband, and the cubs. It gives kids all sorts of tidbits throughout and highlights the large pictures, like when Helen is nose-kissing MacArthur.
For an extra bit of awesome, I encourage you to check out Julie’s blog post about research, primary sources, and how she worked to make historically accurate illustrations for the book. It is a fascinating read.
The backmatter in the book is also a need to read. The story is good for ages 3 and up, but the backmatter would be best shared with readers of 6 and up. I especially appreciate how there is a bibliography and source notes for all the quotes included; it can be used as an example for middle grade (and plus) students on how to use sources.
For fans of animals or history this is one you won’t want to miss.