From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (9780062875853)
This debut middle-grade novel is a stellar look at family, taking risks and doing what you know is right despite opposition from those you love. Returning from her twelfth birthday party at a bakery, Zoe discovers a letter from her father, a man she’s never met. Zoe knows that her father went to prison for murder, but that’s about it. Zoe is sure that her mother won’t let her write back to her father, but Zoe decides to do it behind her back and soon the two are corresponding. When Zoe’s grandmother discovers that the two of them are in touch, she doesn’t object and helps Zoe continue, also letting her speak to Marcus on the phone at her house. Marcus claims that he is innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of and at first Zoe isn’t sure whether to believe him or not, then her grandmother agrees that she has always thought he was innocent. Now Zoe decides that she can find the alibi witness Marcus’ lawyer was unable to locate for his trial. It’s just going to take even more lying to her family.
Marks writing is delectable. She moves seamlessly between writing about Zoe’s interest in baking and her time spent in a professional bakery helping out and then the mystery and drama of Marcus’ crime and his potential innocence. Her depiction of Zoe is deftly done, creating a truly multidimensional character who is juggling her own dreams, problems with her closest friend, and now communicating with her birth father. All of these elements could have been jarring but come together as a perfectly baked treat.
Race is definitely a powerful element in this middle-grade novel where Zoe’s exploration of men falsely convicted of crimes speaks about how many are African-American men. Zoe’s own family is multi-racial, and she is aware of the negative attention that brings even in their large community of Boston.
A novel that’s not afraid to ask deep questions and seek answers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Every morning a young boy plays a game with his father. His father knock knocks at the door and the boy pretends to be asleep until his dad is right next to him and they give each other a huge hug. But then one day, his father isn’t there to play the game any more. His father isn’t there to get him ready for school either. Morning pass with no father. The boy thinks that maybe his father is just there when the boy is at school, so he writes him a letter about how much he misses his dad and how much he expected to learn from him. The boy waits for months and nothing happens, then one day he gets a letter from his father. A letter that speaks to their separation but also one that encourages him to continue to live and knock on new doors.
Beaty’s text is deep hearted and searingly honest. As his author’s note says, he had an incarcerated father who had been his primary caregiver as a young child. So Beaty has revealed much in this picture book about the gaping hole left from a missing parent. Yet the genius of this book is that it will work for any child missing a parent for any reason. And I adore a book with such a strong connection between father and child. Beaty manages to convey that in a few pages, leaving the rest of the book to reveal the mourning and grief of loss but also a hope that shines on each page.
Collier’s illustrations shine as well. Done in a rich mix of paint and collage, they are filled with light as it plays across faces, dances against buildings, and reveals emotions. His illustrations are poetry, filled with elephants, showing the boy growing into a man, and the man turning into a father. They are illustrations that tell so much and are worth exploring again after finishing the book.
This book belongs in my top picks for 2013. It is beautifully done both in writing and illustrations. I’m hoping it is honored by the Coretta Scott King awards and I’d love to see a Caldecott as well. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.