By Catie Brown
A jaguar watches cautiously as it laps at lake-water. A chimpanzee tilts its head intelligently. Four meerkats stand to attention. These are just some of the beautiful, bright-eyed characters that gaze out from the pages of Betty White’s latest literary offering.
“Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo” is White’s seventh book, and teems with glossy photographs of the actress and her eponymous friends: the zoo animals that she has known and adored over the course of her ninety years.
Best known for her long-running roles on TV’s “Golden Girls” and “Mary Tyler Moore,” White paints a charming vision of her life as a “zoophile” in the book’s introduction, tracing her love of animals back to her parents, and listing every zoo encounter that she has had since. According to the book’s press release, this “is the book that White has wanted to write her entire life.”
However, the book doesn’t actually involve much writing. Instead, White has sprinkled a few sentences among the myriad glossy photos. There is no question—“Betty & Friends” depends heavily on Tad Motoyama’s captivating pictures. Motoyama, a Los Angeles Zoo official photographer, presents us with images that are at times surprising or humorous, but always stunning.
There are two ways to read “Betty & Friends.” The first is to look it as an overgrown advocacy pamphlet, as White repeatedly expounds the values of zoos and their work in preserving wildlife. It’s hard to ignore the frequent references to the destructive power of people: “I was lucky,” she writes on page 246, finishing an anecdote about her misunderstood friends. “I didn’t inherit my father’s fear of snakes or of any type of animal—except maybe humans.”
However, the second way to read it is much more fulfilling. Imagine, as you open the cover, that you are sitting next to White in her living room. Perhaps she is sipping some tea, perhaps coffee. As you begin to turn the pages, White starts to tell you about the pictures in her glorified photo album.
As you turn to page 255, White describes the picture where she is holding a curled-up armadillo, saying, “Uncurled, you get a whole armadillo. But when he curls up, he’s perfectly spherical and all you get is a hard little armored ball.”
The whole book is told in this engaging, anecdotal style, so that readers can’t help but feel that an outing to the zoo with America’s sweetheart would be no ordinary fieldtrip. Rather, in this book, Betty takes a charming trip down memory lane, and—to no one’s great surprise—she turns out to be one great tour guide.
And just like that, you’ve spent an afternoon hanging out with Betty White. And her friends.
Catie is a contributing writer. Email her at email@example.com.