Read The Midnight Zoo

The Midnight Zoo is a 2010 novel by Sonya Hartnett. It was first published on 1 November 2010 in Australia and was then released in the United States a year later. It follows the story of two gypsy boys that find an abandoned zoo after fleeing a traditional celebration. The novella has gained critical praise for its “lyrical” prose and for the illustrations in the United States version, done by artist Andrea Offermann.

The Midnight Zoo, a zoo of talking animals taken out of their original habitat, but left unattended after an invading army takes the owner away. Three Romany children, Andrej, 12, his brother Tomas, 9, and baby sister Wilma, stumble upon the zoo while escaping the soldiers. The rest of the novel occurs over one night, exploring ideas of freedom and responsibility. All in all, Sonya Hartnett is the children’s author for children who want things a little different.


Alex Baugh provides an interesting commentary on the ending:

Hartnett does not spare the reader any of the horrors of war in her descriptions.  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.   For Tomas, she is his mother, for Andrej, she is Saint Sarah, patron saint of the Romany; for the animals, she is Alice.   And when I thought back on the sentence “They had journeyed to the final edge of life beyond which there were no walls,”(pg 214) my initial reaction was that the planes had returned with their bombs and it was the moment of death when the woman called the children come and eagle prepares to fly, but it was also the moment when they have found true freedom in death.

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett, illustrated by Andrea Offermann by Alex Baugh

Note, Dr Pam Macintyre has created a useful teaching resources associated with the text.

I wrote a review of Sonya Hartnett’s The Ghost’s Child here.


She would have the memory of him, but the truth is that a memory is hardly ever good enough to console a heart.

But she longed for him to be happy, to be hers: so she would not open the prison of her heart to let him go. “I love you,” she told him, and this was true, and she knew that he believed her; but when she said it she saw the chain around his ankle, a length of links that let him wander, but not far. She did not see the chain around her own ankle, because love is blind.

Since the day by the pond Feather was always saying pretty things that were like bubbles of air, things she doubted and brushed away. His face darkened, however, and he said, “I should not have stayed. When I first met you, you had no cares. You shone with all the fabulous things you had seen, your world was wide and full of colours. Now there are shadows under your eyes, and you live in a lonely forest.”
“But I wanted you to stay.” She was willing to take the blame. “I trapped you into being with me, and threw away the key.”
Feather shook his fair head. “That’s silly, Maddy. There never was a trap, there never was a key. I stayed because I wanted to. How else could I have shown you that I loved you?”

Matilda sat back, tapping her heel. “I didn’t know much in those days,” she said. “I was just a girl. I’d always imagined that love was something which couldn’t be destroyed. I thought that, once conjured, love was towering and eternal. But wandering around the cottage alone, I began to suspect I was wrong. Maybe love was really a feeble, spineless thing, which easily forgets the thing it once adored. If that was true of ordinary love, then my love was different. My love was something colossal, my love was great. I wanted to stop loving Feather, but I simply could not. He had hurt me, he had deserted me, he had never tried – and he’d never wanted the fay. If Feather had ever loved me, it was only with that faulty, insipid love. And yet, despite all this, I missed him, and I longed for him to return. I was shackled with love, I was blighted by it; I was its victim, plagued to despair. But Feather, I imagined, was carefree somewhere, never giving me a thought. He’d got everything he wished for, and nothing he didn’t want. Me, though – I had nothing! A broken heart, that was all! And it wasn’t fair – it made me angry – eventually, it made me kick and punch and smash my way out of that awful white box.”

The islands used to float about, following the summer, until somebody realized that the islands should stand still. Because that’s what endless fulfilment is, isn’t it? That’s what forgetfulness is. Just stopping still. So the islands stopped floating, and now, on an Island of Stillness, everything is still.”
“How awful that sounds,” mused Maddy.
Zephyrus shrugged breezily. “You’d be surprised. Some people like things that way.”

Maddy drew a breath, rehearsed the words in her head, and asked, “How can you know love, and lose it, and go on living without it, and not feel the loss forever?”
“You can’t,” Feather answered. “You feel the loss forever. But you put it in a safe corner of yourself, and bit by bit some of your sorrow changes into joy. And that’s how you go on living.”

In the beginning, the blind ex-soldiers were reluctant to be treated by her. There was still something barbarous and odd about Maddy; and she was youthful, and not stern, and she wasn’t a man – in short, she was nothing a doctor should be.