Reviews /

The Last Zookeeper

Authored by Aaron Becker
Illustrated by Aaron Becker
Published by Walker Books Ltd

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The Last Zookeeper is another exquisite wordless picture book which offers a hopeful message about finding meaning and purpose through caring for nature in a post-apocalyptic world.

Noah’s Ark is an obvious source of inspiration for this book: we once again have floods, animals, a boat and even a rainbow, but instead of human Noah, we have robot NOA who starts looking after the animals from an old zoo that, like everything else, is almost completely underwater. NOA is essentially humanoid in shape, though without any facial features and much larger than humans, such that animals like tigers, elephants and giraffes look tiny in comparison to him. However, there is real tenderness in the way that Becker shows him fetching food and feeding the creatures in his care, allowing us to form a real emotional attachment to him.

Later on in the book, NOA creates a boat to transport his animals to a new, safer habitat, and some of the most striking pages are those where NOA, the animals and their boat are dwarfed by the seas and skies through which they sail, with Becker’s illustrations expanding from multiple smaller panels per page to full double-page spreads. Jeopardy is introduced in the form of storm and shipwreck, but rescue ultimately comes from an unexpected source. The ending is profoundly moving and uplifting.

This is a perfect story to tell without words, especially as it is seemingly set in a post-human (and perhaps post-language) world. Becker’s beautifully intricate watercolour and ink pictures reward careful examination as new details emerge on each re-reading. And it poses so many profound questions – from whether robots could ever be capable of the love demonstrated in this story to how the different animals are able to coexist peacefully with each other. Ecological concerns are, of course, at the heart of this book, and Becker forces readers to confront the consequences of climate change, whilst also suggesting that there can still be hope even after catastrophe and prompting us to think about actions we can take now to safeguard our natural world.

One of the joys of a book like this is that it could be used with a very wide range of ages at both primary and secondary level – Becker’s storytelling is sufficiently layered and complex that all children and young people (and adults) can respond to it on different levels. It would offer a rich stimulus for discussion or writing – or, indeed, for children to create their own wordless picture books.