Review by Hira Peracha
HarperCollins Children’s Books, January 2020
286 pages, Paperback, $16.99 CAD, 978-0-06-287585-3
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7
Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism, Mystery
“There’s this quote from Maya Angelou,” Grandma said.“‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them.’ That quote usually refers to when someone shows you their bad side, but I think it’s also true when someone shows you how good they are. I really do think Marcus is a good person. I don’t see how he was capable of killing someone. I always trust my gut, and my gut has always said to believe him.”
Everyone lies. Or so it seems. Zoe’s biological father, whom she has never met, is in prison for the murder of a university peer and no one will tell Zoe the truth about what happened. Zoe’s mother hides everything about her father and her best friend has been talking behind her back. However, Zoe herself has secrets. From her home in Boston, unbeknownst to her mother and friends, she secretly receives and sends letters to her father in prison. Trouble is, he isn’t being clear on why he committed the crime to begin with.
Middle-grade novel From the Desk of Zoe Washington merges three storylines. The first is Zoe’s biological father’s story. Zoe is on a hunt to learn more about why his entire existence is hidden from her. The second is Zoe’s passion for baking. She works hard at a summer internship at Ari’s Cakes in order to apply for a baking championship. The third is Zoe’s issues with her ex-best friend Trevor. Author Janae Marks does a great job of intertwining these three plots without oversaturating any of them.
The mystery of Zoe’s father reminds me of another middle-grade book: Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs by Karen Karbo. Both novels do a great job creating mystery and feeding curiosity by simultaneously answering old questions and raising new ones. In Marks’ novel, the mystery involves uncovering part of Zoe’s identity, whereas in Minerva Clark, it involves a missing diamond. Both Minerva and Zoe are strong characters who show persistence and intelligence, although the tone of From the Desk of Zoe Washington is more serious.
Zoe shows great determination, even though she makes mistakes along the way. By the end of the novel, she learns about the realities of a real job, the value of a good friend, the amount of time forgiveness takes, and how to deal with both disappointment and consequences. Forgiveness and communication are some of the outstanding themes. Almost every character learns something about keeping things from others. It’s refreshing to see all of them go through changes and rediscover the importance of being truthful.
Throughout the novel, Marks also highlights the importance of discussing race. Zoe learns about the Black Lives Matter movement and becomes increasingly concerned about how prevalent racism is in her life, as well as how it affects her family. However, Zoe is adamant to do something about it and learn the real reason why her father is in prison. Despite the important issues that are raised, young readers will easily follow along with Zoe as her knowledge increases about her own identity. Overall, From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an inspiring novel that middle graders can relate to or learn from!
Hira Peracha is a Psychology and Creative Writing student at the University of British Columbia. She enjoys reading and writing both fiction and poetry.