The main character of this middle grade chapter book is 11-year-old Whit Whitaker, a boy who has lived his whole life at Meadowbrook Zoo in Alabama. His mother is the director of the zoo, and his father is Head Elephant Keeper. Whit is home-tutored, so his only friends thus far have been the animals. Moreover, his parents seem to care more about those animals than him, and he resents it.
One day he meets a young girl, Stella, who comes to the zoo by herself to draw birds. They become friends and Whit is ecstatic. His entire focus is now on Stella, even though, as his teacher admonishes him:
“No one – not even your parents – are the key to your happiness. You’ve got to find that – ‘ She tapped his chest with her finger. ‘In here.’”
[Okay, so his home schooling teacher isn’t the best on using correct grammatical tenses (viz, “No one … are…”). But she has the right idea about matters of importance!]
It turns out Stella comes to the zoo by herself to escape a very bad situation at home. Stella tells Whit that he has no right to complain about his parents, given the reality of hers. Whit doesn’t know how to process the information. He feels horrible about Stella’s life, which does seem way worse than his own, but he feels like he has legitimate reasons to feel bad also:
“Stella telling him that he couldn’t complain was like saying you can’t complain when you have a sore throat because there are people in the world who have cancer.”
And then there is the matter of Stella’s father. One reason she can’t tell her dad she comes to the zoo is because he thinks it is immoral to keep animals in captivity. Again, Whit feels conflicted:
“The animal rights people were all about returning animals to the wild. But they hardly ever had a plan for learning about the animals. And they cared even less about conservation. It was because of zoos that species like black-footed ferrets and Spix macaws and plains bison had been saved from extinction.”
And yet, Whit also knows that zoos don’t always have adequate funds to make sure the animals have enough space and don’t get bored. However, in the final analysis, he concludes, “for many of the animals in the zoo, freedom meant death.”
Matters come to a head both between Stella and her parents, and between Whit and his. And after a terrible accident at the zoo, Whit finally is able to separate out not only what is important from what isn’t, but how his own focus on the trees may have blinded him to the forest.
Discussion: There is a lot that is good about this book:
1. Mom has a more important job than dad!
2. Thinking about issues: is it okay to whine or feel pain or complain when there are others who are worse off?
3. Thinking about issues: are zoos ultimately moral or immoral?
4. Thinking about issues: how do we figure out what makes us happy?
All of these questions: I still think about them in my own head all the time!
On the other hand, there is something about the story that I found disconcerting, having to do with the ending, which I will discuss as vaguely as possible so as not to be spoilery. Is it really feasible anyone would be this dumb? Is it feasible no one would be mad or no one would suffer the consequences? Is it feasible it could be “gotten over” so quickly by everyone affected?
Evaluation: I think this book raises some great questions, and believe it would make a great discussion book for parents to read together with their middle grade children. I imagine kids will relate to many of the same things Whit worries about, like how one forms friendships, and what to do when friends ask you to do something that you don’t think is right. Additionally, the book contains many fun and interesting facts about animals and about zookeeping. It also includes some charming illustrations by Stephanie Graegin.
Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2012