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The Last Zookeeper by Aaron Becker

Updated: May 14

Aaron Becker shares The Last Zookeeper (Candlewick Press), a wordless picture book imaging a futuristic Noah's Ark in a luminous sci-fi parable for our changing world.


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About the book: The Last Zookeper by Aaron Becker. Published by Candlewick Press.


A master of the wordless form imagines a futuristic Noah's Ark in a luminous sci-fi parable for our changing world.


The Earth has flooded. The only signs of humankind are the waterlogged structures they left behind. Peeking out from the deluge are the remnants of a zoo, home to rare and endangered animals, survivors of long neglect. Tender-hearted NOA is a construction robot who's found new purpose as the caretaker of the zoo's beleaguered inhabitants. Bracing for the next storm, NOA builds an ark from the wreckage in search of new land and a new home, only to discover something even more profound. With boundless compassion and sweeping scenes of sea and sky punctuated by detailed wordless panels to pore over, Caldecott Honor-winning creator Aaron Becker delivers a timely and concrete message about the rewards of caring in even the most difficult of times that is sure to inspire the dreamers among us.



Episode Transcript:


INTRO


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 


I am please beyond words to welcome back a familiar face making wordless picture book wonder.


Today I welcome Aaron Becker to the podcast.


Aaron’s latest picture book, The Last Zookeeper (Candlewick Press), imagines a futuristic Noah's Ark in a luminous sci-fi parable for our changing world.


Let’s step into my conversation with Aaron Becker. 


Ready? Here we go.



INTERVIEW


Aaron: Hi there. My name's Aaron Becker and I am the author of Journey and lots of other books you may or may not have heard of. And my latest is called The Last Zookeeper. 


Matthew: Aaron, you, as cataloged through this podcast, have built a career on wordless storytelling. I'd love if you don't mind for you to briefly describe the story within The Last Zookeeper.


I like to say for readers that haven't encountered it yet of, of any age, how do you describe this story? 


Aaron: I always say it's sort of Wall-E meets Noah's Ark. 


Matthew: It is. I agree. 


Aaron: which is the easiest way in. It's a little bit more than that. It's sort of my climate change book or it started out that way and it became a book about a caring robot.


The Last Zookeeper tells the story of Noah, a gigantic, and I mean gigantic robot, taller than a skyscraper, really, who takes care of animals in a forgotten zoo and a flooded earth. And one day a storm comes along and he's got to use, um, everything in his power to save the animals and help them find a new home.


Matthew: There, so I know from talking to you about the Journey trilogy that you're a world builder. I remember your lore book, right? All the lore that you had built for that. And so I want to get into world building again with you soon. Uh, I love knowing that Noah was the name of the robot. I had a question cause I was like, you know, it, it makes me think of Noah, N O A A.


It makes me think of the organization, but, uh, I don't think that that's a coincidence that those names can be shared. Um, but let me ask you what moment or idea or event inspired you to create this book. Was it an awareness of climate change? Was it, uh, I don't know. I can imagine that. One idea for a book can also inspire another idea and another.


It's certainly my experience writing. So I wonder for this one, where that seed of the idea came from. 


Aaron: Yeah. So The Last Zookeeper started out as an entirely different book. So in that way it inspired another book because it inspired a different version of itself and went through some major, major changes, um, metamorphoses.


Like it started out, I knew I wanted to do a climate change book. I wrote a book about a young boy. who took care of animals in a zoo in a kind of post apocalyptic world, a flooded planet where he was sort of on the outskirts of the walled city that was protected and gilded and he was along with his community trying to make a living on these, on this stilt city, like outside of the walled city.


And he had found this zoo that had been abandoned and he would take his little motor boat every day into the city and get supplies to help feed the animals. And one day he falls through a pool in the polar bear exhibit with a baby polar bear that's kind of sick and is having a hard time making it.


And they land in an alternate universe on the other side of the pool where he meets his doppelganger like us, another version of himself who lives on a planet earth that was more well taken care of. And so together they go off on an adventure and the, the mirrored self helps him rescue this baby polar bear by taking it back to the polar ice caps and finding a mother polar bear to take care of it.


And when he comes home, he. makes a small change to his life and he, um, takes his motorboat and changes it, transforms it into a sailboat, a wind powered boat. And that is the end of the story. So I, I basically, that was called The Last Zookeeper. I had a dummy, like several dummies, as you know, I work like multiple, multiple drafts.

It was wordless and it was finished and it involved, like the book started out backwards and you had to. When he goes into the parallel universe, you had to literally flip the book around 180 degrees and read it the other way. And then, um, my designer and my editor were like, number one, this is way too complicated.


And, uh, number two, like it doesn't end with any sense of hope. Like, why didn't he just stay back in the better world? Like, why come back to his home world and like, just do it again? changed the sale. And to me, I, even to this day, I will say I still like that book. And I feel like that could have been a book, but when you're When you're with a team of creators as an author, you're, you know, you're kind of in this relationship with your editor and I've worked with the same editor since Journey and you have to sort of give and take a little bit.


And so I wrestled with this story that was kind of floundering and one night in Before I went to bed, I was drawing in my sketchbook, and I drew this hunched over, tired robot dragging a gigantic fishnet through the water. And I don't know where it came from, but I did that drawing, and I was like, that is something.


There's something there that I care about, there's heart in that, there's a connection to that character. And that's where the current version that we all are getting to know came from was a project that had kind of beaten me down and I was sort of that robot, that hunched over robot, exhausted and tired and not knowing where to go and, and he was right there with me and I thought, all right, there's, there's something here, let me see if I can insert, like you were saying world building, I had built this world, like the whole thing was there in my head, I knew what it looked like, but I didn't have the story to go with it.


And this drawing of the gigantic robot carrying this fishnet behind him, dragging it through the water was like the answer I needed. And many drafts later, it turned into the book that that's been published. 


Matthew: So you've left so much room for the reader here, Aaron, probably questions that I could ask you, but I would probably prefer for you to not answer because it's, they're unanswered in the book.


So why not let us, the readers, have those answers, but I wanted to just give those back to you as a means of I think tapping into the wonder that I see in this book, which I appreciate a good storyteller as well as a good editor, uh, being able to bring out that you've done here, which is that in the experience we have in reading The Last Zookeeper, we don't, we don't experience humans, whether or not they exist period or just exist somewhere outside of the, the location that the book takes place.


Or maybe they exist inside the robots and we don't see them. They're not present. to our eye in this book. And I think that that alone gives us a lot to think about as readers in terms of climate change and what our solutions look like. I think I listened to an awful lot of science podcasts and, and the question of like what happens on an earth post humans is a thing that comes up.


And so when I read this book, I think about Coming up to solutions for climate change that might not involve us, that might be beyond us. And, and for me, that reading feels extremely selfless for humans, for humanity to think, well, maybe, maybe we've been such a problem in climate change that we need to help be part of the solution, recognizing that it, it, it, we might not be able to survive, but we can help the world that we've inherited survive. 


Aaron: That might be 


Matthew: grim to some, but it just is a read on this that I wanted to give to you that I, in that way, I came to appreciate not the absence of humans in your story. 


Aaron: Yeah. Well, it's funny because there is, what makes us human is present in the story.


We don't see people, but we see a character that has empathy and has humanity. Sure. And, and in that way, Noah, which I call Noah, but it's, he's just a giant robot or it is a giant robot. They, they are the child in the story who's sort of inherited, like all children are inheriting the earth that generations of humans have created.


And this robot inherited the earth that humans sort of left behind and hadn't really taken care of, but he cares for some reason he cares about it. And, and maybe he doesn't even know, or they don't even know why they care about it, but they do. And. Um, I think the idea of a, of, of a book without people in it, it's, it's almost like a book without words in it because you, it opens up interpretation, right?


It opens up so much more projection can happen from the reader. They can insert themselves into this, you know, if you notice also, for those who've seen the book, The robot does not have facial expressions. Like in Journey and Quest, they have facial expressions that are usually kind of blank and like purposefully blank so that you can project your emotional state onto them.


Like if you're feeling sad or lonely, that's what the girl's feeling at the beginning of Journey. There's not a whole lot, like, there's not a lot of whites of the eye to show like, oh, I'm really feeling this or that. Like I want the reader to project themselves. Well, now I've taken it a step further and there's no, there are no eyes, there's no mouth.

So this robot is one gigantic projection, uh, vehicle. 


Matthew: Yeah, beyond body, uh, beyond stance. There are some stance that feels, again, a projection that feels like, Oh, you, you, you mean this, you mean this kind of care, you mean this sort of, uh, reproach or something, but no, there's no, there's no, there's no face for us to Yeah, 


Aaron: there's just body language, exactly.


And so I want to, I want to have, you know, like climate change is a, is a huge difficult subject matter and almost an impossible one to write without sounding preachy. And I did not want to do a preachy book. And I also think that, You can't, we are at a point right now where nobody has the answer. Like, the technologies are out there.


We sort of know what we need to do. We are finding that, that there's not the will or the way for governments to act strongly enough and corporations to act strongly enough to actually do what needs to be done. And so what we're left is sort of like a, a pretty despairing Outlook. If you want to be honest with kids, and I want to be honest with kids, I'm not going to write like all you need to do is recycle and do your, do your part.

Drive an electric car and that'll solve everything. I didn't want to write that book. And so what I was left with was like a lot of, uh, I wanted there to be hope, but I wanted there to be hope in, in, in a sense of like, what can each reader bring to it on their own terms versus being told, This is what you need to do to make a difference.


Matthew: Yes. And, and hope, not just in this robot, caring for these animals that are stranded, that are abandoned. Um, but also when they become threatened, a sense of care to bring them to a place where they can continue thriving. You've got a wonderful quote from Jane Goodall that opens the book. Was that a, quote that anchored your story.


Was it one you always had or did it come after? I'm going to read it. Um, but then I'd love to hear your answer. You're right. Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved is the quote from Jane Goodall. 


Aaron: Yeah. When I found that, I realized that's what I was writing and I didn't know I was writing it until I found it.


I love it. The story was finished and it was a mirror in that way. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and you were saying like, you were mentioning that we, we watched the robot care for the animals, but then also step up to the plate when they need help. But this was, this was one level deeper that I wanted to go in this story, which is Oh, and I think of, I think of you especially when, with this notion, which is that you're a very caring person and you care deeply about your students and your, your kids and who you are as a person.


And a lot of times in life, we're not rewarded for that. It's like we're, it's either an unsung thing or, um, we just do it, we don't do it necessarily because we're expecting to be noticed. We just care because we care. And what I liked about this, the way the story ended up and landed, was that at the end of the story, like Noah has been defeated, like he's taken, he's, he's built this ark or this boat because, and the reason he's built a boat is because he's always fancied little sailboats that he's collected, little miniature, well to him they're miniature sailboats, and so he's just, it's just something his heart has been drawn to and he enjoys building model boats.


Well, then when he needs to save these creatures, the first thing he thinks of is like, well, what do I love doing? I love making boats. I'm going to build a giant boat and save. So he's just following his heart and he's just caring. And still he's defeated. Like he gets into a, a terrible storm and he's on a deserted Island and all hope is lost.

But at that moment, when things work out, and I won't maybe ruin it for the reader. We can save 


Matthew: that, sure. 


Aaron: Things do work out for him, even from that dark place. And that was really what I wanted to say, was that, A lot of times I think children and all of us, adults alike, we're care, we care about something, but there's no sense that it's going to pay off, but we still care.


And I wanted to show an example of when that does work, like there is hope. If you're someone who feels like you give it all and no one sees you. Don't stop. 


Matthew: You, Aaron, literally made that in the book by having a robot who solitarily helps. There's no one else to see them, to praise them, to even give the directive that that's the thing we're supposed to do.


Uh, they are just compelled to do that. Yeah. And I also, I would say you gave, it appears that this robot came with the symbol of peace. Or that, that symbol from the Noah story of the dove returning with the, the, the, the proof of life, the, the, uh, fig leaf, um, that symbol that was, was either again, manufactured onto that robot, or we don't, we don't need to know, we don't know why we don't need to know why, but it is nonetheless a symbol that is sometimes outward facing for that reader, uh, to notice that it's there, um, and to ask, ask why. 


Aaron: Yeah, if you look in the, um, or the curious minds out there and who have copies of the book or find one at the library, it's a little hard with a library copy because of the way that they're written.


that it gets taped down, like the jacket. But if you look at the end papers of this book, you will see evidence of Noah's past life, right? And in his house that he's constructed our, our old kind of work pro progress administration posters of he and his compatriots building a better tomorrow together. Um, as these giant robots who were actually built by humans to, to construct a seawall to, to save us.


And that's why he's so large. Um, and the, the NOAA symbol is sort of the acronym for the government institution that, that built these robots to save us. And, uh, you know, he takes it in another direction. Like he's, his purpose didn't quite pan out, but he's still, you know, He's still looking somewhere deep in his DNA is the notion of protecting others and caring.


Matthew: Deep in the DNA. I love it. You like can't, can't help, but you yourself, Aaron, can't help but project yourself onto this robot. I love it. Not in his programming, but I hear it. I love, I truly, I love it. Um, the, um,


Hmm, where do I want to go with this? I guess what I said, I want to say briefly, cause it keeps coming up in my mind is in this way, titling The book, The Last Zookeeper, be it a remnant title from a past book, uh, draft that you had still as The Last Zookeeper. It also, sort of implies that either one, this robot was programmed to be a zookeeper, and this is the last surviving one, WALL E style.


WALL E is the last surviving functioning WALL E robot doing that action. Um, or two, we are, The role we perform. You are a teacher, not just because you're in the role of teaching, but because you are teaching others, you're imparting on others. You are a leader because you lead. And, um, I share that back because my favorite thing when I was, uh, running the podcast network at a Kids Co was helping to come up with the names of podcasts because I love a good double entendre in that way.


I love a good, oh, this title also can mean. what you want it to mean, or what you project onto it. So I love in that way, Aaron, that the title stayed, because I think It too allows us to formulate our own thoughts and interpretations around what's going on in this book. What does it mean and what implications does it have for us?


I think I also have this wonderful fascination with looking at buildings that are run down, that people have abandoned, that, uh, that nature is taking back or that time is taking hold of. Um, I made a, I wrote a question for you that I noticed. I noticed for you, and it might be just that you have a healthy fascination with time, but in A Stone for Sasha, in The Tree and the River, in The Last Zookeeper, you're playing You're exploring with the effects of time, of time passing.


I, we could say the same thing about the Journey Trilogy as well, but, um, in those three in particular, I really see you dancing with time and the effects of it. Um, and I wonder if that, if you're just maybe at a place in your life, in your career, in your creativity, that you're thinking about time a lot and what it means for us to have an impact on time and for time to have an impact on everything around us.


Aaron: I think that time is, uh, a great question or a great topic for, for people. In fact, I was just listening to someone talk about that. They believe that time is that we think of time as moving towards the future, but perhaps it's the other way around that it's moving towards the past. And we just don't interpret it that way that we're all sort of headed towards because we're all headed towards our own death, right?


And there's others before us who have already died. And so we're kind of. We're actually moving in that direction, which is kind of a grim way of thinking about it. I kind of 


Matthew: love it, but yeah, 


Aaron: we are the comet tail. We're not the head of the 


Matthew: comet. No, 


Aaron: we're not. Uh, no, I don't think I'm, I don't think that, that these books have to do with time because I'm questioning mortality as much as I'm wondering about, um, the scale of things.


And this book is all about scale, like a giant robot, like the animals look like play things. And throughout the entire book, you almost never see one close up. Um, and who are we like in the vast universe and the tree in the river and stone for Sasha, we're both totally about that. Like when you are a child or a human and you're questioning, who am I?


And you don't have a has a lot of, um, uh, sort of markers for passing through time. We don't have the rituals that people used to have, and they, they sort of have, have become replaced by, you know, consumer groups. And so what bracket, what bracket are, are you in that you get catalogs in the mail for? Like, that's kind of like what we've become as agents of, of spending our money as opposed to understanding who we are in like the grand landscape of time.


That just doesn't come up. It sounds super heavy and like, whoa, I thought this was a children's book podcast. But I mean, of all things we want to teach kids is, is to understand scale and who, who, what can you expect out of life? Like we were, we were brought up in the eighties, uh, like you're taught, like, Uh, you can be anything you want and your dreams are possible, right?

Yeah. 


Matthew: Exceptionality. Yeah. 


Aaron: Exceptionality, right? Like we kind of need to scale that back a little bit to use that word in a different way. And, and so time is a really handy way of thinking about who are we in the grand scale of, of, uh, of the universe. Um, and so to create a world where there aren't people in it, like that brings that question up pretty quickly.


Yes. To do a book about a tree watching a river and the human civilizations come and go over 500 years or a stone travel over millennia. Um, yeah, it, it, it's something I'm interested in and comes to me naturally. And so there it's going to end up in the book. 


Matthew: I love in that way, in scale, the way that even just taking in the last zookeeper, but I think also to the tree and the river, the way that it can make our, our time here, our worries, our everything, it puts us into a perspective, doesn't it?


Where we can feel at the same time. Just so insignificant. This worry you have is, is nothing in the scheme of things. And yet, that small act you're doing to help someone else is literally everything. It's the basis 


Aaron: of. When are you going to write a 


Matthew: book? Have you written a book yet? Oh, I've, I have a couple, just not published, but yeah, yeah, yeah, no, yeah.


Aaron: I'm looking forward to those. 


Matthew: Ha ha ha ha ha. Uh, um, I. I'm 


Aaron: serious. 


Matthew: I say that to you though, I think Aaron, because I think there's something, there's something of the, of, of myself that I see in the way you write stories in that I'm absolutely fascinated in, in the hand of the universe moving all things and in what autonomy we have in that space.


What it matters, our actions matter in that space. And also how inexplicably the world would change if, if we weren't doing, if we weren't showing up with kindness, if we weren't showing up, um, to tell people I do love you in case this is the last time I get to tell you that. Uh, I'm fascinated by you. the value of the, of the smallest things.


Um, it's the, it's the, Scott C wrote a book called the hug machine and he wrote this line and forever I come back to the line. It, it informs my teaching and informs how I walk through the world, which is, he says in the hug machine, my hugs can make the small feel big and the big feel small, right? It's that, how do we, how do we hold space to know that everything is significant. And at the same time, you're just, you're just one speck. It's okay. It's okay to be moved by the universe. It's okay. Wow. Wonderful. I, uh, look forward to, I hope that I have the chance, I'll have the chance with readers, um, with my students, but I hope I have the chance, uh, on our larger connections that you and I have with other friends and other, other readers, other colleagues, to hear what they project onto The Last Zookeeper.


And, and I hope that you get to hear that. I'm grateful that I had the chance to share it with you. Uh, you're always so gracious, letting me, letting me fall into my wonder with you. You never stopped me from having that moment. I really appreciate that. Um, but I look forward to hearing how other people, uh, are, are finding space in your book as well.


Aaron, thanks for sharing it with me. Absolutely. Hey, I, as you know, we'll see a library full of children soon. Is there a message that I can take to, to my, my students, to your listeners from you? 


Aaron: Yeah, I think it's, uh, it's really easy when you're growing up to think that you need to please other people.


And that's sort of like how you're going to, to get, get somewhere. Especially in school you're looking to see how your grades are or how you're getting along with your friends and that kind of stuff and those are important pursuits, but I would say try and take a look at what you care about. That's much like Noah has no one to show off for.

like Matthew, you brought up. If there was no one that was going to look at, at what the work you do, the creative work that you do, or the pursuits, your, the things that you love doing. If there was no one, what would you choose to do? And what do you care about regardless of whether, uh, you earn admiration or respect or success outside of yourself or, and think about what that might be and see if you're doing it or if you're putting it off till tomorrow.


Because if you're not doing it now, start and keep doing it.



OUTRO


Matthew: Thank you to Aaron Becker for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 


You can pick up your own copy of The Last Zookeeper (Candlewick Press) wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through Bookshop.org. You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/). 


Our music is by Podington Bear. 


Podcast hosting by Libsyn. 


You can support the show and buy me a coffee at www.matthewcwinner.com.


And on that note…


Be well. And read on.



End Of Episode

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