Adam the Ape Teaches Empathy for All Beings

Adam the Ape by Wolfgang Wambach is an exciting adventure novel with hand-drawn illustrations for readers eight to fourteen years old. It follows a boy named Kenny who is unable to verbally speak, so he uses sign language to communicate. Due to his struggles to connect with humans, Kenny is shocked when he meets Adam, a circus ape who also uses sign language. Adam learned from a scientist before being sold to a zoo and then kidnapped by the circus. When Adam runs away from the circus and Kenny is suspected of helping him, they try to get back to the scientist so Adam can be safe and Kenny can learn “the secret of language.” Their journey includes disguises, guns, chase scenes, and a trial between man and ape.

Wambach first published the book in German in 2014—as “Adam der Affe”—and translated it into American English in 2022. His motivation was to introduce his children to humanism and give them an understanding of evolution. “On the first level, it is an entertaining story for kids,” he wrote for the Humanists International blog. “On another, it should enable the young readers to find out that the differences between humans and animals are smaller than most adults might think.” Wambach decided to add scientific epilogues on evolution and Great Apes when he found that original young readers weren’t aware apes are able to learn sign language. The additions encourage children to learn more about the various creatures around the world.

The book inspires children to better understand that other living beings are capable of experiencing suffering and flourishing, and have rights that must be protected. It opens with an old lady reprimanding Kenny for attacking pigeons with spitballs and not caring about the animals’ feelings. We see that Kenny’s cruelty comes from a place of hurt as he is often bullied and frustrated with his inability to speak. He is taught by many adults that animals are less than humans and it isn’t until he meets Adam that he begins to question how different they really are. They both share deep emotions, have difficulty being heard, think logically, and care about others. Kenny learns not only of his own strength but also of his responsibility to protect Adam when society seems intent on harming him.

Young readers will be fascinated by the unique friendship between Kenny and Adam, and parents can appreciate the growth in Kenny’s relationship with his mother Katrina Feldman. Still mourning the loss of his father, Kenny finds comfort in playing video games and is angered when his mom yells at him and threatens to sell his computer. Ms. Feldman is worn out cleaning houses all day for a living and doesn’t understand why her son is struggling at school. It takes time apart and perspective from the scientist for her to fully see her son and be proud of all that he is capable of. She too must break out of her assumption that humans talk and animals don’t, and find how she can support those around her.

Adam the Ape inspires young readers to question what they know about people, animals, and justice—strengthening their critical thinking and emotional intelligence. They learn that we all have the power and responsibility to reduce harm, speak up for, and listen to others. And that can lead to true friendships.