I have just finished reading The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett. Part of my role at The Reader Organisation involves running one-to-one and group reading sessions with children and young people, and so I always have one adult book and one children’s book on the go. I often find that I get a lot of pleasure out of reading books that are written for young people, and some of the children’s books I read I enjoy just as much as adult books – this book was one of those.
There is something magical about The Midnight Zoo from its opening pages – the book begins in a Roma traveller camp somewhere in Eastern Europe and follows the story of two young boys and their baby sister who are trying to survive in the midst of World War Two. What is special and different about this book is that the subject of WW2 becomes almost irrelevant in the story, and it doesn’t matter which conflict the children are in the middle of because this is a story about freedom not about war.
The children are forced to leave their camp, their family and friends behind, and after many days of wandering they stumble upon a zoo which is still standing despite the town around it being destroyed by bombing. The animals, still in their cages, have been forgotten.
What follows made me think deeply about the subject of freedom, what we mean by it, and whether any of us are truly free. The story resonated with me particularly because of the work I do: many of the children that I read with feel that they have had aspects of their freedom taken away from them through no fault of their own; they are in the care system and for many of them their fate is often decided by a court. This feeling of not having control of your own life and not being allowed to make your own decisions can be very hard to bear. I’m not writing this to make any kind of judgement on the care system only to say that I thought of the young people I work with when I read this book and I will read it with some of them and see what they think.
Sonya Hartnett, The Midnight Zoo, Walker (2010).