John's father has never had much time for him, but one afternoon when John was watching a nature show on TV and admiring the orangutans, he noticed. John's father surprised John (and John's mother!) with a real live baby orangutan several weeks later, and it went as expected - Raja was adorable and John was immediately attached to him. As Raja grew, of course, he broke things, he made messes, and every day he was living in a world that wasn't built for him. After he bit off one of John's fingers, John's parents divorced and Raja was locked up most of the time. Doing the right thing for Raja isn't easy - no zoo will take him, and John refuses to send him to a research lab for experimentation. When his father runs out of money, John has to take responsibility for Raja's future. How can one person possibly make a difference when faced with a complex problem?
This book is the third in an "ape quartet" by this author, but each book stands alone as a unique story. The other books focus on chimps, bonobos, and gorillas (see below).
This is a fast-paced story with a powerful message about taking positive action. The plot clearly illustrates an ethical point of view with regard to wild animals in captivity, but it isn't preachy and offers details some readers may never have considered, including jungle deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra due to demand for palm kernel oil cheaply generated by palm plantations. Readers will find it difficult not to empathize with Raja (there are small segments told in italics from his point of view), and even when John makes poor decisions, the pacing and the scope of the problem are compelling. This is my favorite of the four books.
Sophie lives in the U.S. with her father, but for part of the summer, she will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where her mother runs a sanctuary for bonobos. Sophie has never been as fascinated as her mother; in fact, she is working on some resentment about her mother choosing her work over family. But when Sophie finds a sick bonobo and cares for him, Otto becomes the focus of her days. When political unrest leads to widespread violence, it's unclear whether any of the bonobos or the humans will survive.
This is the first book in the Ape Quartet, and its violence and mature content make it better suited for readers in middle school than upper elementary. It touches on interesting ideas about politics, the American perspective about the Congo, and family relationships, but it is primarily about survival, and choices people make in desperate circumstances. If you like this book, you may also like Escape Under the Forever Sky.
The organization "Say No to Palm Oil" has a website, 28 day challenge, and other ideas about how to combat the use of palm kernel oil. This connects to the fourth book because a leading cause of diminishing orangutan habitats in the wild is jungle deforestation in order to make more space for fast-growing palm plantations.
"I'd thought about it sometimes, what Raja left behind and what his life would have been if my father hadn't brought him out of the jungles of Indonesia and into my world. But though that nagging wonder had always been with me, I'd never sat with it long enough to understand it."
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