Friday, April 13, 2012

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett

This is one of those books I think English teachers and adults will love, but I'm not so sure about younger kids. It won the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia award and while it has a reading level for students at the end of 5th grade, most young readers won't be able to comprehend all that is going on. Shoot, I had problems figuring out all that was going on. The story unfolds with bits and pieces scattered like breadcrumbs so that you need to have some background knowledge to guess where the story takes place... and I guarantee... you won't know where the story is going or how it will end. By the time I figured out the setting, I was well into the chapters. That aside, this is a beautifully told story with rich metaphors and lyrical text. Sonya Hartnett is an amazing writer.

Night is personified as a black-clad horseman who uses the moon as a lantern casting its light on a village that has been decimated by war. Night is surprised to see two young boys walking in the rubble. The tone of this fable is set with Night as the narrator introducing a theatrical play against a grim background, shining a spotlight on the two major characters, Andrej and Tomas.

The boys meander through the destroyed village with Hartnett's text creating haunting images that assault the senses: "A flotilla of clouds as dense as battleships was unmoored by the gale, and, when the clouds coasted across the moon, the light of Night's lantern was quenched. Darkness was thrown over the village like a sorcerer's cloak: Andrej heard Tomas whimper, and felt him catch at his sleeve." The two scavenge for food in the village and find an abandoned zoo where the animals can talk. The boys not only have to feed themselves, but their baby sister whom they carry in a backpack and needs tending to as well. The boys read the words in the zoo sprawled over the animals cages that are in Czech. The author doesn't tell you the language is Czech... I just googled the words. This is your first clue to the setting. Several chapters later the wolf calls the boys, "Rom" and gypsy children, so now I know that the story is taking place in World War II when the Nazi's tried to exterminate the gypsies along with the Jews. Again, this isn't explained and you have to come with a certain amount of background knowledge. The Holocaust isn't taught until middle school so most 5th graders are not going to connect the dots.

The boys have animal characteristics and the animals have human characteristics. I thought the story slowed down in the parts where the animals were preaching about the evils of humans and zoos and war. This book doesn't build the story in a subtle way like The One and Only Ivan. No, it is more in-your-face and for the most part, one-sided. The strength of the story is in the style, tone, and symbolism; more-so than the narrative and heavy-handed themes delivered by the animals.

The violence involves Nazi's shooting children and adults, a train being blown up, animals being mistreated, and three siblings losing their parents. Andrej has to think like an adult in order to survive and while there are moments that show him as a kid, such as when the two pretend to be airplanes careening through the village, most of the time he is worrying about his two siblings. The story is propped against the harsh backdrop of war and the themes of freedom and war are filtered throughout with an abundance of symbolism and parallels between humans and animals. It is well-known that gypsies highly value freedom and choosing the main characters with that ethnicity makes the loss of freedom more poignant; plus, their nomadic existence is similar to the animals in the zoo who don't live in one place but cover territories when in the wild. Both the animals and the gypsies in this story have lost their freedom and while the animals physically enclosed behind bars, the gypsies are caged by prejudices and are enclosed by invisible iron bars. There is so much symbolism that I cannot cover it in a review. There is a good teacher's guide if you want to go more in-depth with Hartnett's writing.

The dream-like unfinished ending is different and has gotten mixed reviews. The author explains “Yes, I like leaving lots of frayed ends in my books. I write for people who like to think about what they’re reading, so I litter the books with falsehoods and unanswered questions and minor suggestions of major events. I really hate the idea that I must tell the reader everything in clunking detail. The reader is part of the experience that is a book, and I like the reader to have some input into the creation of the work – to decide what happens in the end, if need be. It’s why I never write sequels – the notion of hammering something out to utter flatness is ghastly to me. I will never tell a reader that the way they’ve read a book is wrong. Every thoughtful reading is a correct reading, as far as I can see”. See what I mean about her writing? Even her interview has terrific word choices and descriptions.

If you want to read this book, the middle school library has it. I won't be purchasing it for the lower school library. It is currently on the 1012 Carnegie Medal Shortlist.

Reading level: 5.7

4 out of 5 Smileys

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