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Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship



Last updated Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Author: Isabella Hatkoff
Illustrator: Craig Hatkoff
Date of Publication: 2006
ISBN: 439829739
Grade Level: 3rd    (GLCs: Click here for grade level guidelines.)
Date(s) Used: Feb. 2010

Synopsis: When the six-year-old contributor to this book saw the photograph documenting the extraordinary friendship between a baby hippo (Owen) and a 130-year-old giant tortoise (Mzee), she persuaded her father to help tell their story. Originally an e-book, the hardcover version begins with images of the duo, whetting readers' appetite and providing reassurance as the potentially disturbing plot unfolds. After a scene depicting a pod of hippos near the Sabuki River in Kenya, the text describes the 600-pound baby's displacement and separation from the group during the 2004 tsunami. Children witness the challenging rescue and meet the knowledgeable staff at an animal sanctuary. From Owen's first approach for protection to Mzee's unexpected tolerance, the photographs, mostly by BBC photojournalist Greste, capture the pair eating, swimming, snuggling, and playing together. Their contentment and peace are palpable. Because it is sensitively structured, with careful choices about what is emphasized and illustrated, the situation does not overwhelm readers. The text and the back matter are brimming with information about the animals, their caregivers, and the locale. This touching story of the power of a surprising friendship to mitigate the experience of loss is full of heart and hope. A worthy complement is Ann Morris and Heidi Larson's glimpse at a human family's loss and recovery in Tsunami: Helping Each Other (Millbrook, 2005). Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library

Note to readers:
•  Note: Read the inside flap during your prep time for the background on this heartwarming true story to convey what the book is about. Use the globe to show them where the Tsunami struck (Indonesia and Thailand on the East; Sri Lanka and Eastern Africa) Over 150,000 people and countless animals were killed on that event. There is a pronunciation guide on the copyright page; a map and more explanation of the Tsunami and the park in the back.

Discussion topics for before reading:
•  What is a tsunami? (huge tidal wave which follows an earthquake in the ocean)
•  Are hippos and tortoise normally friends? Do they usually hang out together?
•  Have you seen a hippo? A tortoise? Have you been to a zoo?

Discussion topics for during/after reading:
•  Why do you think Owen went towards Mzee? (they speculate that Mzee’s shell looked like a hippo)
•  Why do you think Mzee liked to be alone until he met Owen?
•  Can a hippo kill a tortoise? (yes, they weigh 8,000 lbs and can eat people!)
•  Why doesn’t Owen crush Mzee with his weight? (he is extra gentle with Mzee)
•  What do you think made them become friends—love.

Craft ideas:
•  Make a hippo/tortoise Valentine for your best friend.
•  Make a hippo and a tortoise out of one paper plate. On the inside plate, draw a hippo face and attach hippo ears and nose. Turn over, and on the outside of the plate, draw a tortoise shell and attach a tortoise head and tail. Draw eyes on the head.

*Note: These craft ideas are just suggestions. You can use them, but you don’t have to use them. You can expand upon them, or add your own twist. Remember, though, that the focus of your time should not be on the development and execution of a craft; the focus should be on the read-aloud and the enjoyment of the book!