With “The Wolf Keepers,” author Elise Broach seems to have included all the go-to themes that teachers and librarians love to see in a middle grade book. One of the main characters is biracial and temporarily homeless. The setting is a fictional zoo in Northern California near Muir Woods; the book is filled with information about the naturalist John Muir. And the story includes a group of wolves, one of whom makes a strong connection to one of the main characters in a manner that does not seem at all contrived.
Lizzie Durango is the daughter of the zookeeper of a small zoo. Her mother died when she was born, and her father has a job that keeps him quite occupied, so she has lots of time during the long summer months to spend roaming the zoo and visiting the animals.
She happens to notice a boy in a blue shirt stealing a tray of food. She follows him and eventually learns that he is living at the zoo because he ran away from home. As the two twelve-year-old kids begin to trust each other, Lizzie learns that strange things have been happening at the zoo at night. Because Tyler is living outside at the zoo, hidden, he has seen people entering cages at night when they are not supposed to.
When Lizzie’s beloved wolves start getting sick and dying, she and Tyler decide to investigate the situation. When they find out what has been going on, the two have a difficult decision to make. Do they share the information about the wrongdoing even though they think that the perpetrator may be doing the right thing?
Broach leaves the decision about whether they have done the right thing up to the reader. Each reader will have to decide for him/herself what the right thing to do in that type of situation is. Aid someone in breaking the law (by keeping silent about it) or turn that person in even though that person was doing what they thought — what Tyler and Lizzie thought — was the right thing.
Broach tackles the sometimes difficult subject of zoos and animals in substandard cages in a very tactful and even-sided manner. Lizzie’s father is definitely running a zoo at which people try to do right by animals. Lizzie explains to Tyler that the wolves were captured because they were injured or shot at by ranchers for killing cows and sheep, and that being in the zoo saved their lives. Tyler responds, “If putting something in a cage saves it.”
There’s also a bit of a mystery regarding what is happening to the wolves and why they are getting sick. Clever readers will see the obvious suspect immediately, but it’s still exciting reading until the mystery is completely solved.
The story will draw in young readers because of the lovely balance between description, dialogue and action. It’s a quick read, but it also raises many questions about conservation and animals and zoos. The book also touches realistically and beautifully on the topic of drug abuse and foster care. This would be a great choice for a classroom read aloud or a book study.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt and Company) for review purposes.