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The Midnight Zoo - Sonya Hartnett: Home

Novel Study - The Midnight Zoo

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett

The Book


A Simile is a figure of speech that makes a comparison, showing similarities between two different things. Unlike a metaphor, a simile draws resemblance with the help of the words “like” or “as”. Therefore, it is a direct comparison. eg. "Moonlight lay on Andrej like a fairy’s suit of armour."

A Metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. eg. "…the moon a thin cat’s claw."

Personification is a figure of speech in which a thing, an idea or an animal is given human attributes. The non-human objects are portrayed in such a way that we feel they have the ability to act like human beings. eg. Night is introduced as a "black-clad horseman".

Imagery means to use figurative language to represent objects, actions and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses. eg. It was dark and dim in the forest. – The words “dark” and “dim” are visual images.

Repetition is the repeating of a word or phrase a few times close together to emphasize an idea. "Their eyes in their young faces were dark, like raven eyes, and their black hair was straggly, as unkempt as raven nests."

Study Guide

Novel Reviews

Citemaker - Online Referencing Tool

Citemaker is an online referencing tool which will help you create correctly formatted references for your assignments. It offers help with print and online resources as well as many others. If you sign up for an account, you can save lists of references. Otherwise just use it as and when you need it and copy and paste the references you make. jAPA is a slightly less complicated version of the Citemaker to help younger students.


It is midnight in a destroyed village somewhere in Europe. Through the moonlight, two boys, one with a baby in his backpack, come walking. They have been on the road for weeks, scrounging an existence in a landscape often devoid of humanity and sustenance. The back-story to the boys’ current situation reveals itself slowly: their family has been slaughtered by soldiers two months previously. They find a pitiful zoo which miraculously has survived the war that has ravaged its village. Also miraculous is that each of the animals in the zoo speaks to the boys. Over the course of one night, we are given the stories of the animals, the zoo, and its most recent zoo-keepers. While the story can be read as a narrative of survival during war, much of its significance operates beneath the surface of realism. Symbolic meanings are fundamental to understanding the narrative: its time frame, the survival of the zoo, its midnight setting. 

Allegory and Symbolism

Allegory: A story that serves as a disguised representation for meanings other than
those indicated on the surface. The characters in an allegory often have no individual
personality, but are embodiments of moral qualities and other abstractions like love
or greed. Each character in an allegory represents one and only one idea (i.e.,
Orwell’s Animal Farm). The allegory is closely related to the parable, fable, and
metaphor, differing from them largely in intricacy and length.

Symbol: A symbol is a person, place, or thing that comes to represent an abstract
idea or concept in all its complexities and possibilities of meanings —it is anything
that stands for something beyond itself.


A Fable is a short story intended to provide a moral lesson at the end. In literature, it is often a lesson given through some sort of animal story.

A fable can be described through plants, animals, forces of nature and inanimate objects by giving them human attributes or qualities -  where they demonstrate a moral lesson at the end.

Sometimes us humans are pretty stupid. Sometimes we just don’t see when we get things wrong – or right. So, fables are stories that remove us a little distance from ourselves – stories using animals as characters – so that we can step back and look at ourselves. So that we can learn about ourselves and the world.

Characteristics of a Fable

  • A fable is intended to provide a moral story.
  • Fables often use the main characters as animals that are presented with anthropomorphic* characteristics such as the ability to speak and to reason.
  • Fables personify the animal characters.

Take It a Little Further…

The purpose of writing fables is to convey a moral lesson and message. However, Fables also give readers a chance to laugh at the errors of human beings. They are very helpful in teaching children good lessons based on examples (e.g. the Hare and the Tortoise). They can also be used for the objective of satire* and political criticism.

* anthropomorphic - Giving a non human object (such as an animal) human characteristics. It is essentially personification.

*Satire is a genre of literature in which errors vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule - they are made fun of - ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Classic example of a fable that is also a satire is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Magical Realism

Magic realism is a style of writing (a literary movement) that blends elements of realism and fantasy or the supernatural.

Right, so remember that ‘Realism’ as a writing style was all about portraying the ordinary people in the ordinary world? O.K., well, pretty soon some writers got bored of that style and concocted a strange combination of ‘realism’ and ‘magic’. "Magic" and "realism" are two things that don't seem like they should go together. Right? Well, they seem like a strange combination, but strange combinations are just what make Magic Realist writers tick. They love to show the mundane, everyday world we know all too well—but then they inject it with some fantasy - as if fantasy were the most normal thing in the world.

Open up a Magic Realist novel, and you'll find lots of descriptions of regular people just like you and me doing everyday, regular things like washing the dishes, setting the snooze button the alar going to school or work. But turn the page, and these same people are likely to simply float away like a balloon, or turn into an animal, or move between the world of the living and between the world of the dead.

Characteristics of Realistic Fiction

Magic Realism is defined by contradiction:

  • On the one hand, it draws on the Realist tradition in literature, which was all about depicting the world as we see it, with all its everyday details and all its many problems.
  • But on the other hand, Magic Realism fills this Realist world with the fantastic, the extraordinary, and the supernatural.

It's a literary movement that jumbles together the fantastic and the mundane, and by doing so, it shows how life, even at its most trivial, can get fantastic pretty quickly.

Take It a Little Further…

While Magic Realism has its roots in older literary movements like Realism, it only really exploded on a global scale beginning in the 1960s, with a number of Latin American writers. Two of the best writers in this style (from Latin/South America) are Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Magical realist fiction depicts the real world of people whose reality is different from ours. Magical realism endeavours to show us the world through other eyes. If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have "real" experiences of ghosts.

Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Harnett is one of Australia's most acclaimed writers. Her books include The Silver Donkey, Ghost's Child, and Surrender. She won the 2008 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world's largest children's literature prize, given each year in memory of the Swedish author or the Pippi Longstocking books. The judges said, 'With psychological depth and a concealed, yet palpable anger, she depicts the circumstances of young people without avoiding the darker sides of life.'

Read an interview with Sonya Hartnett here.

Historical Context

The Roma are an ethnic people who have migrated across Europe for a thousand years. Today, they are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe — about 12 million to 15 million people, according to UNICEF, with 70 percent of them living in Eastern Europe. About a million Roma live in the United States, according to Time. 

The Romani people faced discrimination because of their dark skin and were once enslaved by Europeans. In 1554, the English Parliament passed a law that made being a Gypsy a felony punishable by death, according to the RSG. The Roma have been portrayed as cunning, mysterious outsiders who tell fortunes and steal before moving on to the next town. In fact, the term “gypped” is probably an abbreviation of Gypsy, meaning a sly, unscrupulous person, according to NPR.

As a matter of survival, the Roma were continuously on the move. They developed a reputation for a nomadic lifestyle and a highly insular culture. Because of their outsider status and migratory nature, few attended school and literacy was not widespread. Much of what is known about the culture comes through stories told by singers and oral histories.

In addition to Jews, homosexuals and other groups, the Roma were targeted by the Nazi regime in World War II. The German word for Gypsy, "Zigeuner," was derived from a Greek root that meant "untouchable" and accordingly, the group was deemed "racially inferior."

Roma were rounded up and sent to camps to be used as labor or to be killed.According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazis killed tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia. Thousands more Roma were killed in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno and   Treblinka. There were also camps called Zigeunerlager that were intended just for the Roma population. It is estimated that up to 220,000 Roma died in the Holocaust.

Read the full article here.