Danger At The Zoo


Danger at the Zoo Cover

I was working at my computer one day when my editor from American Girl called to ask if I’d like to try writing a mystery about Kit.  I was excited about the idea, but a little nervous too. Lots of readers already knew and loved the character created by Valerie Tripp. I wanted to do a good job.

The mystery plot was up to me to develop—as long as I stayed faithful to what readers already knew about Kit and her life. Before I could even think about writing the story, I needed to do a lot of research. I wanted to build on what readers already knew, but also explore a topic that hadn’t been covered in one of the earlier Kit books.

The first thing I did was head to Cincinnati, Kit’s hometown. I spent several days in the big library downtown, reading old newspapers from the 1930s.  I was looking for real events that might suggest a good fictionalized mystery story.

I quickly learned how important the zoo was to Cincinnati citizens during the Great Depression. The newspapers were full of articles about the animals, events at the zoo—even details like when fences got painted. I decided the Cincinnati Zoo would make a great setting for Kit’s mystery!

Here’s a good example of the kind of article I found so helpful. Can you find the details that made their way into Danger at the Zoo?


The article above is from the July 28, 1938 issue of The Enquirer. While doing research, I’m always looking for details that can help build suspense in a mystery story. When I read  the article and learned that the Guinea baboon threw things from his cage whenever he saw a child being mistreated, I knew I could use that in the climax scene of the book.

The article below is from the July 4, 1935 issue  of The Enquirer. The zoo’s Fourth of July celebration gave me the perfect setting for the big confrontation scene in the Monkey House.


And here’s one of the articles I found about a strike at the zoo. It is from the May 16, 1935 issue of The Enquirer. Knowing that there was tension between some of the zoo workers and the zoo managers helped create a mood for the story, and gave Kit some possibilities to think about as she considered her suspects.


Newspapers don’t last forever, so many libraries and museums actually photograph local newspapers. The result is a roll of microfilm, which can be read on a special machine. When I find an interesting old newspaper article, I’m usually able to print a copy of it. As you see, sometimes the print quality isn’t always the best. The articles I’ve included here have actually been enhanced a bit in Photoshop, so they’re a little easier to read than my original photocopies were.

Next stop, the Cincinnati Zoo!

cincy zoo sign

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is one of the oldest zoos in the whole country. I learned that the building used as the Monkey House in the 1930s was still standing. In fact, it is said to be the oldest zoo building still in existence in the United States.

Though it was fun to visit the Monkey House building, I discovered that it looks very different today than it did during Kit’s time. I needed to see old photographs of the zoo   so I could describe it accurately in Danger at the Zoo.

I found some old photos in books and museums, and some great old postcards on eBay.  The one below is postmarked 1905.  The building in the center with the domed top was used as the Monkey House in the 1930s.  (Today it is the Reptile House.)


The postcard below is postmarked 1918, and I imagine this is similar to the zoo landscape that Kit, Stirling, and Will would have known in the 1930s.  The view of the Monkey House shows some of the outdoor cages attached to the building, where animals were kept during warm weather.


Notice anything different about the caption at the bottom of the postcard above? During Kit’s time, the zoo was known as the Zoological Garden. Today, its full name is the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. A century ago the grounds were much more open and park-like than they are now. But the grounds have always been beautifully tended, and an observant visitor can learn a lot about animals and plants during a visit.

The pictures below are also from postcards. This one shows Susie the gorilla in her cage. During the 1930s, visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo loved watching her eat.


Here’s another old photo from the zoo. I didn’t end up including Billy and Janie in the mystery, but in Kit’s time people enjoyed performances by trained chimpanzees.


During the 1930s, people’s attitudes towards animals and their lives in zoos were changing. Workers at the Cincinnati Zoo were replacing cement-and-bar cages with more natural enclosures for animals. Do you think Susie, Billy, and Janie should have been left to roam about a natural area of the zoo, or do you think it was OK for keepers to dress them up and train them to perform?

I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the process that I used to research and write  my fourth book for American Girl:  Danger at the Zoo: A Kit Mystery. Have you ever sent a postcard while on vacation? If so, then perhaps one day in the future one of your postcards will be used by a researcher or an author to help imagine the past! (By the way, the stamp above reveals what it cost back then to mail a postcard. What does it cost to send one now?)

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17 Responses to “Danger At The Zoo”

  1. nancyloswald Says:

    As always a great post. Loved the postcards and newspaper articles.

  2. Liz V. Says:

    On a long ago business trip, my parents promised 5 year old me that, if I was good in the car, we would visit places I wanted to see. Hit every zoo on that 3,000+ mile trip. Bribes were more judiciously worded thereafter, I’m sure.

  3. Ruth Says:

    I am so excited that I won last week. My husband, Dan, is also a book lover and would be honored to have any of your books in his collection. We will be sure to share them with our grand-daughter when she is older (only a year old now!). We both believe that children should be surrounded with good books. Ruth

  4. Kathleen White Says:

    I am just wondering how much time you are given to produce a story. It seems like given the travel and research put into it, one would need quite some time to make it happen! Please enter me our family loves visiting zoos.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Kathleen, usually I try to allow a year for writing a book, although since I write 2-3 books per year I’m not sure how that all settles out. I usually have several in various stages going at any one time–doing very preliminary travel/research for a future Chloe book, digging into a topic for a current American Girl project, proofreading whatever is the next to be published. I “work” almost constantly, but since I love the research (and usually the writing process too), I count myself lucky!

  5. Tricia Says:

    I read this a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it! It was exciting and engaging. My enjoyment might have been enhanced because we’ve been to the Cincinnati Zoo. I remember some of the interesting older buildings. My family used to visit zoos wherever we traveled, but then one of the boys got to a stage of “another zoo? haven’t we been to enough?”

  6. Elizabeth Johnson Says:

    How fascinating!! Your research uncovers so many great treasures and stories.

  7. Binah Says:

    Pleas enter me! Thank you for the opportunity.

  8. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    The year I taught in Africa I also had the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Jane Goodall in her Tchoupounga Sanctuary in Conga. I learned so much about chimps as I helped with them, and it is distressing to see them dressed up and “acting” human. Did you know their DNA is nearly the same (99%) as ours?

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Wow! What an experience that must have been. And to meet Jane Goodall…one of my heroes. I thought a lot about whether to include the way animals were treated in the 1930s in a book for young readers–I tried to make it a teachable moment.

  9. Kathleen White Says:

    I agree!

  10. Stacie E Says:

    I am bookmarking this page so that my nine year old daughter can read it tomorrow. She wants to write her own story this summer and reading about the process you used to research your story will be very helpful to her. She loves Kit!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      You’re entered! I’d be delighted to think that my blog post helped inspire your daughter. I’ve written a number of these “Story Behind the Story” posts, so you can also suggest to her that she scroll back a bit.

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