The Children Are Alone by Aron Nels Steinke
Anything can go wrong when children are left alone for the first time. In my newest children’s book, The Zoo Box, the main characters, siblings Erika and Patrick, are left unsupervised for the evening. Their mother and father leave them at home for a night out and depart with the promise that if they behave themselves, they can all go to the zoo the next day. Older sister Erika, who is perhaps 10 or 11 years old, is left in charge of her brother Patrick, who is a few years younger. At first, Patrick commandeers decision-making for the two of them, until a turn of events leaves them in a dangerous situation and Erika finally takes control.
Erika and Patrick don’t quite demonstrate sound judgment. Their series of errors begins when the two open a box labeled “DO NOT OPEN,” thereby unleashing a zoo’s worth of wild animals into their suburban cul-de-sac household. However, as luck may have it, the two are wearing their Halloween costumes and blend in unnoticed by the wild bunch.. They don’t act with much prudence when they follow the animals out into the forest and finally arrive at a zoo, where something even more peculiar and more frightening awaits them. Here, humans are confined, while the rest of the animal kingdom munches popcorn and takes delight in their leisurely observations of the human animal. Humans play sports, mow lawns, watch tv, and perform acrobatics, all to the amusement of their furry observers.
Erika and Patrick test the limits of their freedom up until the very point that they are discovered and chased by an angry mob of zoo security-birds who want to give the siblings a new home as part of the zoo’s permanent exhibition. In a mad dash, Erika and Patrick make their way back through the woods, to the safety of their house and into bed just as their parents return home. In their parents’ estimation, the siblings behaved themselves and they have earned their promised trip to the zoo when they wake in the morning. That is, if they can even sleep. You can bet the children will have a thing or two to say about the prospect of said trip over breakfast. In the end, had the sibling’s parents had not left them for the evening, all of this drama would have surely been avoided.
Erika and Patrick aren’t the first children to be left home alone before they were ready to take on that responsibility. Currently there are no federal age guidelines for when you may leave a child at home unattended, and only three states have these kinds of laws. In Illinois, the earliest you can legally leave your child alone at home is at age 14. In Maryland is it is 8. In my own state of Oregon, the age limit is 10. As a parent, I found this hard to believe. When my next-door neighbor left his 3-year-old alone in his house for 30 minutes while he went out to buy beer, it didn’t enter my mind that it was anything but neglect and abuse and we promptly called 9-1-1. But maybe there are few laws because it is a grey area, one that allows families to make these decisions based on an array of factors including age, duration of absence, maturity level, preparedness, and home environment.
Regardless of whether it is illegal or not, their parents’ choice to leave Erika and Patrick home alone was a poor decision but at the same time an opportunity for the reader. Young readers will immediately come to that same conclusion. Children crave stories with irresponsible decision making and calamity just as much as they seek to learn from positive role models. In the classroom (I am a teacher by day), my students’ favorite part about learning the rules is when I give them the opportunity to role-play, and more specifically, to role-play what not to do. This gives children the chance to try out making decisions in a controlled way, and to feel good about their own actions.
Fortunately, by the end of The Zoo Box, Erika and Patrick have been spared. They have made it through the consequences of their bad decisions, safe and sound, tucked into bed with brushed teeth. The adults are clueless, have learned nothing, and based on their experience, will probably leave the kids at home again very soon. On the other hand, Erika and Patrick have had the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes, and we can expect the siblings will behave more cautiously the next time around. Their lives have been changed because they were given the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Young readers can delight in seeing the whole mess unfold as Erika and Patrick fumble with their newfound responsibility and that maybe it’s not the best idea to open mysterious containers that explicitly tell you not to do so.
Aron Nels Steinke lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Ariel Cohn, their son, Marlen, and their three rambunctious cats. Aron is a second and third grade teacher by day and cartoonist by night. All summer long you will find him in the forests of Oregon, eating wild berries and jumping in waterfalls!