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Orangutan Houdini by Laurel Neme

Written by Laurel Neme
Illustrated by Kathie Kelleher
(Bunker Hill Publishing, Inc.; $17.95, Ages 3-7)


Fu Manchu, a crafty and clever orangutan in a Nebraska zoo, longed to roam outside the boundaries of the enclosure that he shared with four other orangutans. Although their outdoor play area allowed them to exercise and explore, Fu had his sights set on visiting a stand of elm trees growing near the elephant corral.

One day, Fu secured a loose wire from a light fixture. He concealed it in his mouth until he found an opportunity to fiddle with the enclosure’s door lock. Wiggling and juggling the wire, Fu soon popped the lock, unbolted the door and signaled to the others that an unauthorized adventure was in store!

ORANGUTAN HOUDINI, Neme’s debut picture book, is based on the true story of an adult male orangutan at the Henry Doorly Zoo in 1968. With gentle humor and mild suspense, Neme skillfully conveys the intelligence and capability of this mischievous ape with a penchant for escape. We, the readers, are in on the joke from the start, knowing how Fu was able to pick the lock. But poor Jerry Stones, the zookeeper, was repeatedly outsmarted by Fu and his friends, finding them at play in the elm trees on several occasions.

The zookeeper warns his staff to be more careful with the locks. They double check the locks, and search the enclosure for possible lock-picking tools. Finally, they concede defeat and build a new enclosure for the orangutans. Fu then reveals the wire that he has kept carefully concealed in his mouth all along, and thus earns an honorary certificate from the American Association of Locksmiths.

The attractive illustrations by Kathie Kelleher are colorful and nicely detailed, capturing the bemused and carefree attitude of the apes in contrast with the confused and frustrated zoo staff. Elephants, giraffes and a tiny chipmunk are also sprinkled periodically through the story, showing the disparity in the size of the zoo creatures and wildlife.

ORANGUTAN HOUDINI will appeal to budding naturalists and those with an interest in animal intelligence. Neme includes a helpful author’s note that discusses the orangutans’ ability to make deliberate plans, devise tools, and deceive others in a playful fashion. The book is a great springboard to talk about ape intelligence and the careful design of stimulating and safe zoo habitats. And for those wanting even more information, Neme’s extensive website includes a wonderful teacher’s guide to accompany the book, as well as helpful information on orangutans, endangered species, and protection of international wildlife habitats.

– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey


Where Obtained:  I reviewed a copy of ORANGUTAN HOUDINI from my local library and received no compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

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