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Monday, September 26, 2011

War is a Beast: New Books — The Midnight Zoo

Courtesy Candlewick Press
The Midnight Zoo
by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick Press)

I picked up this quiet-looking, unassuming book with no expectations whatsoever. I hadn’t heard anything about it. There was no pomp and circumstance surrounding its release. But the jacket copy sounded interesting, so I started reading. And I was almost immediately blown away. Sonya Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo is without doubt one of my favorite books of the year. 

The story is harrowing from page one as two preteen refugee brothers (toting their infant sister along with them) struggle across a bomb-ravaged WWII landscape and stumble into an abandoned zoo. Hartnett’s prose is a thing of beauty, and I was so transported by it that I had a brief moment of worry as soon as the kids encountered the inhabitants of the zoo: Oh, no, the animals are going to start talking.

And they did. But my concern was completely misplaced. The book never gave in to gimmickry, never got the least bit cheesy. It is the best kind of magical realism: A story in which the supernatural elements barely register as being out of the ordinary.

The Midnight Zoo is a bold book, too, daring to tackle literature-course-worthy topics like the folly of war and the meaning of freedom. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on elementary school curricula somewhere (or maybe middle school — there are a couple of pretty rough flashback scenes showing how the boys became refugees). But please don’t take that to mean that the book is even remotely wonky or didactic. It isn’t. It is emotionally powerful and thought provoking in a way that should make Newbery judges sit up and take notice. 

Best for: Lovers of magical realism, parents who want to make sure their kids are reading quality literature, anyone who enjoys their historical fiction with a touch of Dr. Dolittle.

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