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Reviewed by Sierra Blasko for Readers' Favorite
Zoo by Ann Hunter is a short, 63-page story about Ari, an eleven-year-old, nonverbal autistic girl who can understand the animals at Braveland Zoo, the zoo she’s lived at with her younger brother, older sister, and her father ever since the death of her mother. Braveland Zoo is struggling, and very close to going under. To cut costs, they plan to transfer the tiger, Shagakhan, to a wildlife sanctuary, a distressing notion to our main character, who thinks “He’s not what he seems.” The story is told from a dual point of view, and the reader’s time is split between the heads of Ari and Shagrakhan. The book starts off with the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake (Also known as “Jerusalem,” or “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright”) setting the tone of the story, and a black and white illustration of a tiger accompanies the poem.
As a person who, while autistic, is not nonverbal, it’s not my place to speak on how well Zoo by Ann Hunter represents nonverbal autistic folks. However, I can say that if there were more nuanced, sensitive, and compassionate portrayals of autism out there, the literary world would be a better place. I really connected with Ari, and I loved her strong bonds with her family. The story itself takes place in a unique setting (a struggling zoo under lockdown during a storm), and an engaging plot unfolds over the course of the book. The author took an interesting angle with Shagakhan’s motivations and Ari’s abilities, which intrigued me, and I liked the metaphors and poetic language used throughout the book. One of my favorite pieces of description was on page 21 when Ari was describing the way she experienced sound. There were also subtle descriptions of synesthesia, which were really cool to see! All in all, an enjoyable read; I look forward to reading more from Ann Hunter in the future.