This translation from the original Swedish has as its central premise an unlikely plot but this unconventional story is absorbing, poignant and funny with themes of prejudice, family love, loyalty and acceptance ensuring that it is an affecting read.
‘When I was nine, I was adopted by a gorilla. I didn’t ask to be but I was.’ This attention-grabbing opening by the story’s likeable narrator, Jonna, sets the tone for the book that is to follow. Jonna lives at Renfanan orphanage run by the strict and cleanliness obsessed manager, Gerd. Like all the other children Jonna dreams of being adopted by a real mother who will care kindly for her. When Gorilla, large and hairy and wearing hideous clothes, arrives in her battered car she was not at all what Jonna had in mind and the child is horrified when Gerd agrees that Gorilla may adopt her. At first all Jonna wants to do is escape from the junkyard where Gorilla lives and works and is terrified that Gorilla will eat her just as one of her friends had predicted. She resists all the ape’s attempts at friendliness and is ashamed of how Gorilla looks and behaves when the two go into town together. However, slowly and surely Jonna drops her defences and the two begin to bond over fried egg breakfasts and then when Gorilla teaches Jonna how to ride a bike and comforts the child in her hairy arms Jonna realises that she is experiencing love for the first time.
The two team up to haggle over prices with customers, enjoy a dinner out together at a restaurant in town shocking the locals and talk about Gorilla’s dream of owning a secondhand bookshop and their developing bond is a joy to read. The turning point is when the chairman of the local council, Tord Fjordmark, an unpleasant and threatening man, wants to take over Gorilla’s yard for a planned leisure development. Jonna finds herself now facing the possibility of losing the only ‘mother’ she has ever known.
The story of Gorilla and Jonna is an entertaining and at times amusing tale however it also explores the theme of feeling like an outsider, our treatment of those who may appear different for whatever reason and of course how unimportant appearance is by comparison to the things that really matter such as behaviour and attitude. These are weighty issues but through an absorbing and entertaining novel children will be encouraged to ask questions and notice similarities in society. This would make an excellent book to read aloud in the classroom for these reasons and also because it is a thoroughly enjoyable story. Children will probably be familiar with other stories featuring orphans and Gorilla’s love of Dickens’ Oliver Twist is an opportunity to follow this avenue further and draw comparisons with other children’s literature, both classic and contemporary.
The Ape Star was first published in the author’s native Sweden in 2005 and has been translated into many languages since then. This new edition translated by Julia Marshall features images from the feature film by LEE Films.
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