Review of Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo's First Woman Zookeeper

Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper
by Candace Fleming; illus. by Julie Downing
Primary, Intermediate    Porter/Holiday    48 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-8234-4318-5    $18.99

“Helen and Fred Martini longed for a baby,” begins this engaging picture-book biography. Fred spends his days working at the Bronx Zoo, while his wife Helen stays at home in their city apartment, dreaming and planning for a child, until the day Fred brings home a lion cub who needs a surrogate mother. Helen accepts the role with pleasure. Warm, retro cartoon art captures all the adorable and humorous antics of baby animals as Helen undertakes fostering first the lion cub and then, later, four tiger cubs. The art makes it easy to forget the wild nature of these giant cats who like to snuggle and sit in laps, and the interplay between the pictures and the lively text creates a heartwarming and upbeat atmosphere. When the time comes for the tiger cubs to return to the Bronx Zoo, Helen quietly but tenaciously follows and stays with them, ultimately making a space for herself at the zoo and becoming the first woman zookeeper there. This tribute captures all of the delight and empowerment of Helen’s story while only hinting at some of the possible challenges. An author’s note places the events in the early 1940s and delves a little deeper into Helen Martini’s story, touching on historical issues in zookeeping as well as women’s roles in the workforce. A selected bibliography is included for readers looking for additional context.

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Julie Roach
Julie Roach

Julie Roach, chair of the 2020 Caldecott Committee, manages youth services at the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts. She also teaches children’s literature at Simmons University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science and at Lesley University.

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