Review: Threatened, by Eliot Schrefer (Feb. 2014)

threatened Luc, an orphan in Gabon, is hired as a research assistant by an Egyptian professor studying chimpanzees. They move into the jungle, which is full of dangers both environmental and human.

This is sort of a companion to Schrefer’s lovely Endangered, one of my favorite books of recent years. Though they’re related only in that it’s “apes all the time” (as Schrefer said in a panel at AASL last fall): Congolese bonobos in Endangered and chimps in Threatened.

Anytime a white Western author writes about Africa, red flags should go up for everyone. It’s risky territory Schrefer has taken on. Fortunately he knows it, and has done his research (and just as important, his critical-thinking work). Neither book ever felt exoticizing, oversimplified, or White Man’s Burden-y. The white West is unimaginably distant for Sophie in Endangered, her school year home with her white father. It barely exists at all in Threatened. Would I prefer a “window” like this were written by an African? Definitely. But as there aren’t a whole lot of African authors published for American children (yet!), I’ll happily take a well-thought-out book like this by a white guy. (Or a white gal, like Tara Sullivan’s outstanding Golden Boy.)

endangeredEndangered was a stay-up-all-night book for me. Sophie is almost always in immediate danger, so the book hurtles along at a clip. Luc encounters plenty of danger too, of course. But instead of trying to escape a war zone, he’s trying to make a home. Much of the story meanders through his attempts to connect with a tribe of chimps, feed himself, and heal from jungle mishaps — all inherently slow, deliberate processes.

Am I making it sound boring? I don’t mean to; it’s an enthralling view of a part of the world most readers will never see. I’m more inclined toward political stories than animal ones, so since I’m comparing, Endangered was a bit more to my taste. But Schrefer is a smooth, powerful writer, and I think Threatened holds up next to classic wilderness survival stories like My Side of the Mountain or Jack London.

I mention Jack London in particular because there’s something adult about Threatened, in the best possible way. For instance, the story of Prof’s pre-Gabon life is subtle, never spelled out for Luc or for us. Some kids will find that confusing, some will skim right past it, and some will be haunted by it until they’re old enough that it clicks. Most MG or YA novels are set in kid-centric worlds now, but when I was a kid I feel like kids’ books had more hints of the wider world of adults. I miss it.

Read-alikes: Jack London, Golden Boy, Shadow, Never Fall Down, Long Walk to Water, Words in the Dust

The publisher gave me an Advanced Reader Copy at the American Association of School Librarians conference.

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