Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

I started twiddling out reviews as a class assignment two years ago thinking it would help me remember novels when book-talking with students. Lo and behold, this reflection process has been like a boiling hotpot with questions bubbling to the surface as I bumble along. What makes children's books great versus average or what makes picture books rise to an artistic level? What began as an assignment has morphed into an enjoyable blogging journey into the world of children's literature. A common element inked in good children's books is they speak to both children and adults with various interpretations based on experience and this novel is no exception. I often have students point out a theme or picture detail that I missed or didn't notice as an adult, while I might point out a theme or detail from my perspective as an adult that they don't see.

When Sophie saves a baby bonobo ape off the street of Kinshasa, Congo, in chapter one, I applaud her courage for doing the right thing, but I also think of her as an impulsive teenager who is not thinking about the consequences of her actions. As an adult, I would have called her mother before making that decision because I know that traffickers and poachers are dangerous. Sophie's mother has been running a bonobo sanctuary for over six years and has the knowledge and tools to deal with this type of situation. Sophie, who grew up in the Congo, has lived for the past six years with her father in the United States. Their parents are divorced and Sophie is visiting her mom for the summer. A young reader will probably side with Sophie's actions. She is fourteen-years-old and when she sees a half-starved bonobo, she rescues it. Shucks, her mom owns a sanctuary and will be happy, right? Wrong.

Sophie's youthfulness and innocence makes her noble and seemingly right decision to save the bonobo tragic because the action is ultimately the wrong one. The moral dilemma facing Sophie is a driving force in the novel as she discovers that she can't save the bonobos one at a time like she does with the trafficker on the street, but must consider the endangered animals from a sociologically viewpoint; she must think about how the problem is reflected in the poverty of the Congolese people and the history of colonial abuse from foreigners that have stripped the Congo of its rich resources.

She learns this lesson throughout the novel when the capital city of Kinshasa is overthrown and the president murdered. Militiamen and boys take to the streets shooting and butchering people with machetes. When the sanctuary gets attacked and rebels take over, Sophie flees to the forest with the bonobos learning to survive in the wild and trying to reunite with her mother who happened to be in a remote area north of the capital releasing bonobos into the wild.

The constant tension from Sophie's life being threatened, by either the rebel soldiers or bonobos as she figures out their hierarchy, makes this a page turner. Her discomfort of living in the jungle and dealing with mosquitoes, leeches, crickets, and more, involve the reader's senses creating a vivid atmosphere and setting. Sophie doesn't dwell on the deaths of people, she's too busy trying to survive and she forces traumatic thoughts out of her mind. I thought it might be dealt with after the ordeal but the author skips ahead about four years. While some might not like this, it does make it more suitable for young readers who will focus more on the adventures than horrors of war.

This doesn't mean that the author skips the ugliness of war; just that the violence occurs after-the-fact versus a graphic description of someone being killed.  One section becomes particularly intense when Sophie has to deal with a drunk boy soldier. Earlier, an adult explains to Sophie how young boys are snatched to become soldiers and must fight each other to the death. Without giving away any of the plot Sophie cleverly works her way out of what could have been a violent rape situation. It probably isn't realistic but the author portrays the boy soldier as just as much a victim as Sophie; thus making it appropriate for a younger audience. While there is violence, it is toned down (moreso than books like, "Code Name Verity"); Sophie might stumble over a body or hear screams that suddenly stop, but that is about it.

I was first introduced to the Congo in books such as "Heart of Darkness," by Joseph Conrad and "The Poisonwood Bible," by Barbara Kingsolver. These aren't accessible for younger readers and it is fantastic all the great childrens books being written that help build responsible citizens and impress the inseparable connections between humans, animals, and the environment. I have read a bundle of books like this lately. If you want more try: "The One and Only Ivan" by Katherine Applegate (2013 Newbery winner), that deals with treatment of animals and the ethics of zoos; "Moonbird" by Philip Hoose (2013 Siebert finalist), that deals with the extinction of a species and how it impacts the fragile ecosystems; or "A Long Walk to Water" by Linda Sue park, that shows the difference a water well can make in the war-torn country of Sudan.  These stories need to be heard. A great read.

Young Adult
5 Smileys

No comments:

Post a Comment