What You Need to Know:|
• Using magical realism, the themes of war, loss and human nature are explored from the perspective of two young
• It was selected by The Children’s Book Council of Australia as the 2011 Book of the Year for Older Readers.
• The details of the war – who is fighting and why – are never actually revealed to the reader.
• The main characters witness the verbal abuse of soldiers and the violent shooting of their uncle, as well as the horror
and destruction that result from extensive bombings.
• Readers may never look at a zoo in the same way again.
• Don’t be fooled by the cover, which looks somewhat lighthearted; the story is not.
I feel like I could quote almost every line in this story, The Midnight Zoo is so eloquently written. Each word seems to have been chosen with meticulous care, leaving readers with a compelling portrayal of humanity. It would be a worthy selection for a classroom or book group discussion.
Initially, readers see the scene from above, looking down on the world from the perspective of “Night” who holds his lantern, the moon. Through Night, readers are introduced to Andrej and Tomas, two brothers, ages 12 and 9, traveling alone in a country apparently decimated by war. Before long, readers meet the boys’ infant sister, Wilma, whom they carry in a backpack. The threesome have been running, hiding and scavenging for weeks when they stumble upon an unusual sanctuary, a zoo. Under the light of the moon, they cautiously explore the dark paths and discover a lioness, bear, wolf, monkey, eagle, llama, kangaroo, seal, chamois and a wild boar. Moments later, the boys are shaken by dropping bombs and then woken from their bomb-induced reverie by voices; the voices of animals.
The lioness speaks first, beginning a feisty, yet sometimes tender, conversation between the boys and the animals. Readers get to know them, as they share the sad stories of how they came to the zoo, what it’s like to live in captivity and how they feel about the human’s war. In the process, the animals taunt each other, display different personalities and convey strong emotions. The animals also talk about the unfortunate fates of the zoo owner and his daughter, Alice, who realized too late, that although she was grown, she still had much to learn. Andrej and Tomas reveal that heartless soldiers attacked their gypsy caravan, shot their uncle in cold blood, and led the rest of the group into the woods to an uncertain fate. Andrej, wiser than his years, comes to understand that because the soldiers do not obey the “law of nature”, for the strong to protect the weak, they can never achieve true victory.
The boys and the animals have experienced similar losses so they appreciate each other's anguish, and they help each other work through overwhelming issues. The boys are so innocent, wondering if the village they passed wasn’t flat enough already, or if the airplanes hadn't dropped bombs because they were too heavy. When they try to understand why war exists, the wolf offers a voice of reason, telling the boys that the answer is, “I will have my way.” He goes on to explain that “The invaders are people after all, and people are always hungry for more.” The animals also raise the idea that when a person or animal is taken from its home, it leaves behind a gap where that person is meant to be. When Andrej feels guilty about leaving his mother without saying goodbye, the lioness soothes his conscience. Readers do see a glimmer of hope in the end. Despite all the horror that Andrej has seen, he still believes that there is good in this world, and he and the lioness share “a determination to endure.” There is much in this story that is left to the reader's imagination. Who are the soldiers? Why are they fighting? What really happened when the bombs dropped as the boys entered the zoo? Do the boys find peace in the end? Regardless of how the questions are answered, this book is sure to inspire an interesting conversation.
I have to leave you with a few quotes...
“There is sorrow in him so boundless and powerful that he hardly dared approach it. If it got loose, it would gallop like a bolting horse through a fairground, overturning everything it touched.”
“She felt peril rise before her like a tidal wave.”
“Humans are all exactly the same. Each of you lives in a fever of selfishness and destruction. You persecute the creatures that you fear, yet the species you should fear most is your own.”
Finally, here are a few of the animals’ indignant responses to the boys’ surprise when realizing that they can talk:
“So what?” said the chamois “Why shouldn’t we? Don’t you think we’ve got anything worthwhile to say?”
“People talk all the time” said the llama. “They hardly ever be quiet. They say, Are there any more sandwiches? They say, Don’t touch that, it’s germy. They say, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. Aren’t we allowed to talk too?”
2011, 208 pages
Books for Boys, Character/Values, Compassion/Empathy, Folk Tales/Fables, Good Book Club Selection, Illness/Death, Overcoming Fears, Talking Animals, War
• Why did the soldiers want to hurt Andrej and Tomas’ family?
• Was the night with the zoo animals real or imagined?
• Which of the animals in the zoo did you like the best. Why?
• Was Alice wrong to interfere with the train? What was the result of her actions?
• Who appears at the end? Is it Alice? Is it the scene real or imagined?
• If the scenes in the zoo aren't real, what is really happening to the boys?
• What role does Night play in the story? Why is he there?
• When can freedom be a scary thing?
• How would you survive without your parents?
• Why did the boys decide to stay in the zoo, rather than continue running?
• What do you think happens to the boys in the end?
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