A heart-warming and uplifting story that introduces themes of racism and injustice in an age appropriate way to middle grade readers.
Zoe Washington is certain that her twelfth birthday is going to be the best ever. It certainly starts out well with her dream party baking cupcakes at her favourite bakery, Ari’s Cakes. However, when she grabs the mail to see if there are any birthday cards, she finds more than she bargained for – a letter from her real dad. Zoe knows all about Marcus. She knows he was sent to prison for murder before she was born and that he’s a monster and a liar. She’s, therefore, surprised to find that he sounds … nice. His letter implies he’s written to her many times before and Zoe can’t resist secretly replying. This leads to an exchange of letters. The more Zoe learns about Marcus, the harder it is to believe that he’s a monster. Then he mentions he’s innocent – that he has an alibi – and Zoe’s world is turned upside down. He can’t be telling the truth, can he? They don’t lock innocent men up for murder! Or do they?
Regular readers of my reviews will know that I’m not particularly keen on books imported from the USA. (There are, after all, a lot of wonderful stories set in the UK that British children are more likely to be able to identify with. And they get enough of American culture via Hollywood!). However, every so often a book comes along that’s so special I can totally understand why it needs to be shared across the globe. This is definitely one of those books.
When we start reading, Zoe is a typical twelve year old with normal twelve year old interests. Is there going to be a birthday card from her great aunt with money inside? How will she cope with a summer without her two closest girl friends? Will her neighbour and former best friend, Trevor, ever realise why she’s mad at him and apologise? Zoe’s easy to relate to and her appealing first person voice draws you right in.
This comforting tone continues throughout the story but the plot takes a totally different tack as it explores issues about racism and injustice. I especially liked the fact that Zoe’s ethnicity (she is black) is introduced in a series of subtle ways. Indeed, the scene where Zoe describes people’s reactions when she and her stepdad (who is white) are out together has real resonance. (Perhaps, the middle grade equivalent of the now famous plaster scene in Malorie Blackman’s Young Adult book, Noughts and Crosses).
The scenes where Zoe realises that the legal system is not always fair, and especially not to black men, is considerably less subtle but this is probably necessary. It is, after all, crucial that young readers to whom this might be a new concept don’t miss the point. The story, however, successfully manages to cover this in an age appropriate way and move on to the essence of the story. Zoe’s quest – with help from neighbour, and newly reconciled friend, Trevor – to find out whether Marcus is telling the truth. Is he really innocent?
I can’t say too much more without giving the plot away but the climax is suitably exciting and the ending just perfect. All in all, this makes it a heart-warming and uplifting story.
If you enjoyed this and are looking for another middle grade story that deals with real life issues in an age appropriate way, you might want to try The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf or No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton.
Publication Date: March 2020
Publisher: Chicken House
Author’s website: Janae Marks