Winner of the Silver Slate Pencil 2016 (Best Dutch Non-Fiction for Children)
Nominated for the Golden Slate Pencil 2016
Nominated for the Woutertje Pieterse Prize 2016 (Best Dutch Children’s Book)
Selected by the Flemish Children’s Jury
White Raven 2016
Highlighted by the Dutch Foundation for Literature
Thanks to Anne Frank and her diary, the story of the occupation of the Netherlands in World War II is known all over the world. Anyone who wants to find out more about the subject can read books by hundreds of authors. However, many of those accounts are missing something essential: how it really feels to find yourself, from one day to the next, living in a world of danger and uncertainty.
A Chimp on the Toilet by author and journalist Joukje Akveld, however, succeeds in capturing this aspect – and in a remarkable way. It’s all because of the book’s unusual perspective: we see the bombardment of Rotterdam through the eyes of not humans, but animals. Akveld has delved into archives and carried out interviews to chronicle the amazing wartime history of Blijdorp Zoo and its inhabitants. These animals were very unlucky, as their enclosures were right next door to Rotterdam’s main railway station.
The German bombers were aiming to knock out the railway lines, but ended up killing camels and tigers too. A sad and poignant detail here is that the zoo was already moving to a new location outside the city centre, because of a lack of space. The new zoo was nowhere near ready though, so the apes briefly had to be housed in toilets of a nearby bar after the bombing.
Akveld does not begin with the war, but lovingly portrays the lives of the animals from beginning to end. We hear so much about the back story of Kali the rhinoceros, Hans and Grietje the bears, and the group of chimpanzees that they almost feel like family and we start to worry about them. When the bombs finally fall, halfway the book, it hits the reader hard.
Fortunately, Bijdorp also had some famous survivors. The last of them, the slender-snouted crocodile Hakuna, died just three weeks before this book went to the printer’s.
It’s almost as if it was meant to be.
‘The history of the zoo in wartime is astonishing. ‘War is a human affair, but it affects animals too’: that much is clear. It is also astonishing how Akveld has managed to incorporate so much information into a clear and flowing story. This is partly thanks to the extremely clever composition of the book, but also thanks to her wonderfully natural narrative style, in which she explains almost in passing things the reader might wonder about. As a result, A Chimp on the Toilet is literary nonfiction for children at its very best.’ – Jury Silver Slate Pencil 2016
‘Joukje Akveld has made that forgotten past visible and palpable once more, in such a way that we can easily imagine the effect of the violence on the caged lions, and on all the terrified escaped animals that sought refuge among the rubble while the keepers tried to stop the traumatised animals from causing even more tragedies in the midst of all the human suffering. But this original and compelling story about humans and animals does not leave such an indelible impression simply because the facts are verifiable, but because they have passed through the sieve of the imagination and been expressed in precise language and striking images.’ – Jury Woutertje Pieterse Prize 2016
‘A Chimp on the Toilet is an unusual book about both war and animals, and is probably the most surprising and impressive of all the titles to be published this spring.‘ – de Volkskrant
‘Wonderful history book for children (and adults).‘ – Trouw
‘Impressive true story about the history of Rotterdam Zoo until 1945. The story has a clear tone, and is concise and easy to read, with sober comments, convincing depictions of the animals, and evocative language.‘ – NBD/Biblion
‘Extremely original and informative.’ – jaapleest.nl