From the Desk of Zoe Washington

HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Jan. 2020. 304p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062875853.
Gr 4 Up–On her 12th birthday, Zoe Washington receives a letter from her birth father, Marcus, who has been in prison her entire life. He wants to get to know her, and even though she knows her mom won’t like it, she writes back. In their letters they bond over a shared love of baking—Zoe is interning at a Boston-area bakery over the summer and dreams of becoming a pastry chef—and music. When Marcus dodges Zoe’s questions about the crime he committed, she Googles him and is horrified to discover that he was accused of murdering a college classmate. But Marcus also claims he’s innocent and that there’s even a witness out there who could prove it. Zoe doesn’t know what to believe—can innocent people really go to prison? In the course of researching wrongful convictions, she learns about racial bias in the prison system (Zoe and her biological parents are black, a stepfather is white) and decides to search for the alibi witness herself, even though Marcus doesn’t want her to get involved. But keeping secrets from her mom quickly gets Zoe in over her head, jeopardizing her chances of obtaining the information she needs to save Marcus. This is one of only a small handful of middle grade novels to explore the experience of having a parent in prison, and the subject is handled with grace and sensitivity. It also exposes the important and timely issue of racial bias in the prison system in a way that is approachable to a middle grade audience. Zoe is a bright, compassionate protagonist for whom readers will root. She is supported by a loving family whose viewpoints differ yet who all want the best for her. The baking subplot will have readers itching to try out Zoe’s recipes.
VERDICT A smart, necessary, and hopeful middle grade debut that expertly balances a gentle, heartwarming tone with searing insight into systemic racism. Hand to readers who enjoyed Lisa Ramee’s A Good Kind of Trouble or Kekla Magoon’s The Season of Styx Malone.

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