The Midnight Zoo

Written by Sonya Hartnett
Review by Ann Turnbull

In an unnamed East European country, during World War II, two young Roma brothers wander through a devastated landscape, looking for food and shelter.  The youngest boy carries on his back a sack containing their baby sister, only a few weeks old and entirely dependent on her brothers.  At night they come to a bombed town, where nothing but rubble remains and all the people have gone, and there they find a small zoo where the animals are still trapped in their cages, without food or water.

The entire story takes place during the course of this one moonlit night, and explores the nature of freedom, of captivity, and of our responsibility to one another.  Sonya Hartnett’s writing is beautiful, often surprising, yet always clear and simple – particularly when drama and emotion are at their height.  And this is a very emotional story.  The plight of the two children and their baby sister is incredibly moving, and the older reader will guess at the terrible events waiting to be revealed at the heart of the story.  It feels entirely natural when the animals begin to speak.  They comment on the events of the war and the nature of humans and how they distort everything for their own ends.  But although this is a fable, it is not preachy; the raw emotion of the eagle deprived of flight, the lioness parted from her cubs and the children’s loss of their people is immediate and heart-rending.

This is perhaps more an adults’ than a children’s book – but even quite young children will respond to the plight of the animals and their stories.  The dramatic black and white illustrations by Jonathan McNaughtt enhance the book.