The Children's War: The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett, illustrated by Andrea Offermann
Review by Ann Turnbull The entire story takes place during the course of this one moonlit night, and explores the nature of Sonya Hartnett's writing is beautiful, often surprising, yet always clear and simple – particularly when Contact: Anna Castle Facebook Group Our next meeting is on Wednesday, November 14th. Cover image for The Midnight zoo Zoo animals -- Juvenile fiction. Summary. Master storyteller Sonya Hartnett crafts a magical and moving fable about war. This is what Australian author Sonya Hartnett accomplishes in her novel The Midnight Zoo, published in the U.S. by Candlewick.
Each story is different, but each shares a common thread - loss of family, loss of freedom. I don't want to go into detail about their individual stories, because I think would spoil it for any future readers.
The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett - review
They should be read not synopsized. The novel is always referred to as a WW2 story and it certainly sounds like one. Hartnett has said that she really hates the idea of having to tell the reader "everything in clunking detail," but it is easy enough to flush out details that correspond to events in the novel. The fact that the boys are Romany places the novel in Eastern Europe, and the invaders remind us of the German soldiers who invaded Czechoslovakia.
The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett - review | Children's books | The Guardian
When Alice and her friends sabotage the enemy train, a close friend of the Leader is killed, a parallel of the killing of Hitler's friend and Gestapo head Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in Angered and wanting revenge, Hitler ordered the massacre of Lidice. I think that Hartnett deliberately kept these facts and events vague for two other reasons. First, she may have wanted this to be an ageless fable, not one that only relates to WW2, but to all conflicts.
The story just doesn't have a tidy ending.
Portraying War Through Magic Realism: A Review of The Midnight Zoo
But there is a tidy ending - the children and the animals find the elusive freedom they crave. Accompanying the text are soft, almost ethereal black and white illustrations by Andrea Offermann at the beginning of each chapter, as you can see below, and full color cover illustration.
Knowing this, when I came to the end of the novel, I didn't not see it as hopeful or life affirming. At the end, when the figure of a woman in a dark cape appears, the children and animals see who they want to see, someone they believe will take care of them. A fable in which the animals are like the abandoned children, and the children like the caged animals, no longer free to live with hope in their hearts, among their own kind, and in the place they belong.
This parallel between the children and animals is just one aspect of the moral of Hartnett's story - which is that war is the devastating result of humanity's most pernicious traits.
The Midnight zoo
War is what has left the animals without keepers, the children without a home or family, and destroyed not only this village but hundreds if not thousands of others. There are multiple indicators throughout the book that the action takes place in World War II Czechoslovakia during the German occupation, but like any good fable the setting is fairly incidental, the messages timeless and universal.
As the characters talk during a single, moonlit night, more and more themes and parallels are revealed. Many of the animals have, like the children, been violently separated from their mothers at a young age, while the lioness mourns for the cubs recently taken from her. Andrej and Tomas are just as innocent in this war as the animals, not only because of their age, but also because they're gypsies - nationless, landless people who believed themselves utterly removed from the conflict, until the Nazis came for them.
As the more bitter among the zoo's inmates point out, humans brutally exert their will over animals, bring about wars, and generally succumb to the worst in themselves.
They want to lump these little boys in with the rest of humanity's wickedness but, importantly, Andrej and Tomas consistently display the very best characteristics of their species.
They're courageous, resourceful and trusting, which, apart from fleeting moments of levity provided by some anthropomorphised bickering, offers the only respite, the only sense of hope, in this bleak yet beautiful tale.
The Midnight Zoo doesn't have the single, compelling moral of well-known fables such as The Ant and the Grasshopper, say, or The Tortoise and the Hare, perhaps because it's aiming for a more sophisticated audience -- this is a phrase often used in reviews of YA books].
The power of this tale comes down to its theme of freedom: