One of the things I love about the interwebs, and blogging in general, is that I come into contact with so many books that I would never otherwise have heard about. Although I don't have time to follow a ton of blogs, I do read my share, and keep a running list of books coming out that I'm interested in. (And I pin some of them too, just for future reference.) It's a very dangerous habit to have, considering that my average workday already brings me into contact with all kinds of bookish goodness, but at least this way I'll never run out of things I want to read, right?
Somewhere in my bloggy travels, I ran across a review for today's pick, Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz. The book stuck in my head, probably as much for the unique title as for the cover art, which is flat-out awesome -- kudos to Candlewick for such an eyecatching cover. And I'm so happy I had this one on my radar, because it's absolutely one of the most incredible middle-grade novels I've read in quite some time.
First off I need to say that this is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. It's far from formulaic in the subject matter, it's historical, and it's got a slow start. Okay, then, so if you're still reading along, let me say that what makes this work is author Gewirtz's absolute fearlessness in her writing. She never pulls a punch, never backs down from a tense moment in the plot and isn't afraid to make her characters inscrutable. You don't often see that kind of bravery in one who writes for such a young audience - not to say that there aren't amazing middle-grade authors out there, but honestly there aren't many who are willing to pull their characters through the wringer with no definitive solution to the crisis in sight. That's guts, my friends.
So on to the plot: It's June, 1980, against the backdrop of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Annie and Rew are living with their grandmother, a loving but reclusive woman who has trouble dealing with everyday life. They remember their mother, who dropped them off with Gran and gave scarcely a backward look. But their father is a blank. Gran tells them he was killed by "an angry man", in a fight gone badly. So Annie makes up possible stories to assuage her curiosity, and in the meantime she pretty much takes care of everything around the house when Gran is debilitated. It's not a perfect situation, but it works.
Until one night there's a noise at the back door, and an escaped convict appears in their kitchen. Annie and her brother are scared witless. It's evident that the man means to keep the little family hostage. And then Gran comes downstairs, and in a flash Annie and Rew discover that what they thought they knew about their lives is all swept away. In its place is a new reality, one each child approaches from a different perspective.
I won't give away the secrets here, but suffice to say Gewirtz employs multiple layers of issues to drive her story along. There is gorgeous imagery here, the kind that makes you want to reread entire passages to catch all of it. The character development unfolds slowly; though their roles may be familiar, their personalities are wholly unique. Annie herself is an unreliable narrator at times, and she admits it. In fact, honesty and truth are a running theme throughout, as readers discover that the lives of these characters are as variegated as the Zebra Forest that sits behind their home. There are no easy answers, just like in real life, a facet of this novel that I particularly appreciate. It would be simple for Gewirtz to wrap things up with a bow, but that wouldn't be true to the spirit of her characters. Lucky for us, Gewirtz chooses authenticity.
In the Zebra Forest, chocolate oak and white birch trees mingle to give the wood a striped light-and-dark element. In the same way, Zebra Forest the book threads conflict and heartache with hope and truth. Watch out for this one, it'll get under your skin.
Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz, published by Candlewick Press
Sample: "Gran never went out there except near dusk, when the shadows gathered. She usually didn't go out in full sunlight, and told me once she didn't like the lines the trees made. Gran was always saying stuff like that. Perfectly beautiful things -- like a clean blue sky over the Zebra -- made tears come to her eyes, and if I tried to get her to come outside with me, she'd duck her head and hurry upstairs to bed. But then it would be storming, lightning sizzling the tops of the trees, and she'd run round the house, cheerful, making us hot cocoa and frying up pancakes and warming us with old quilts."