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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.

Confession: I Like Kid Stuff

Have you ever taken the dust jacket off a book you were reading so other people wouldn’t see the cover illustration of a teenager riding a dragon?

Illustration: Christopher Healy
There should be no shame in an adult enjoying a bit of entertainment that just happens to be targeted at younger audiences. In fact, the lines between children’s entertainment and mainstream pop culture have been blurred more than ever before.

This comes as a blessing for parents who are captive audiences to their kids’ pop culture choices (i.e., all of us). When you read your children a book, chaperone them to a movie, or listen to a playlist at one of their parties, you hope you can get through the experience with your sanity and good taste intact. And if you make the right entertainment choices, you can. You can even genuinely enjoy yourself.

But wait! Those of you without kids — don’t leave yet. This blog is also for any non-parent whose bookshelves sag under the weight of Harry Potter hardcovers. Or who goes to late night showings of Pixar films. Or who knows the actual channel number of Cartoon Network.

This blog is also for those parents who happily use the existence of their kids as an excuse to engage in children’s pop culture for themselves. Like the mom who bought a copy of The Hunger Games to save “until her daughter is ready for it” — and her daughter is two. Or the dad who plays post-bedtime games of Lego Star Wars on the family Wii, so he “can give the kids a hint if they get stuck.”

Of course, some kid stuff is just for kids — as it should be. And when a bit of media falls into that category, I'll be sure to point that out. In the meantime, I invite all of you to join me in the search for that holy grail of children's entertainment: Crossover appeal.