Engaging in critical thinking about one’s own belief system does not often include laughing so much you end up breathless and hiccuping but that’s just what happened one evening last week when our bedtime read was Meet at the Ark at Eight! by Ulrich Hub, illustrated by Jörg Mühle, translated by Helena Ragg-Kirkby.
This witty, keenly observed and questioning novella retells the biblical flood story with wave after wave of philosophical observations and deadpan humour. Two (male) penguins smuggle a third aboard the ark when an overworked and stressed-out dove chivvies them along to avoid extinction.
Deep in the hold of the boat the friends continue what they started on land: trying to tease out in their own minds whether God exists, and if so, what he is like. Conundrums (“We’re birds, but we smell like fish; we have wings, but we can’t fly.“), chance (“Life is so strange. If two other penguins had been standing here, they’d have been given these tickets and we’d have ended up drowning miserably,“), honesty, guilt and the complexities of friendships are explored with a stark innocence that makes the penguins’ questioning all the more powerful.
And these questions are ones that I think come naturally to children when thinking about religion – about punishment, about proof, about the essence of faith. The answers, such as they are in this book, leave a lot of space for making up your own mind; this isn’t a black and white pot-shot at religious fundamentalism, but something much more nuanced, even if some may find the laser-sharp humour hard to marry with their own beliefs.
Whether or not you or your kids pick this book up because of its rich philosophical strand, two further aspects of this moral tale are worth pointing out.
Meet at the Ark at Eight! is extremely funny. One scene in particular had my girls and I barely able to breathe for all the laughter as I read the book out loud to them; when the dove comes to check up on the penguins, one of them hides in a suitcase and pretends to be the voice of God. This scene is just so theatrical (it comes as no surprise to later find out that the author, Ulrich Hub, has written many plays) with perfect timing and exquisite dialogue. “God”‘s game is up when he pushes the boundary just a little too far and asks the dove for some cheesecake; I am putting money on this becoming a family catchphrase that will stay with us all our book-reading lives.
Secondly, the illustrations by Jörg Mühle are wonderful. Nearly every double page spread has at least one illustration and the characterization, especially of the dove, is sublime. I’ve seen very few cases in all the illustrated books I’ve ever read where an apparently simple, nonchalant line can pack such a punch.
I can only heartily encourage you to read this multi-award-winning retelling to find out how three goes into two for the final disembarkation in front of Noah. This novella hides real delight and serious philosophizing in between its slim, sensational pages.
The day after we read Meet at the Ark at Eight! “God” came visiting in his suitcase. We supplied cheesecake, and I’m glad to report that penguins, kids and all the celestial beings we know were all very happy with such a delicious after school treat.
Whilst taste-testing cheesecake we listened to:
Other activities which might work well alongside reading Meet at the Ark at Eight! include:
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Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.