Last night I was looking for a tween book, and I picked up Solving Zoe
by Barbara Dee. Solving Zoe is about a sixth grade girl who is having difficulty adjusting to both the increased academic expectations and the friendship changes that accompany starting middle school. Her problems are compounded when a weird new boy at school, Lucas, takes an interest her, and becomes convinced that Zoe is a code-reading prodigy. All of this is set against a background of a chaotic and highly-achieving family, and a temporary job as a lizard-feeder.
Solving Zoe is a good early tween book, in that it tackles shifting friendships and finding one's own talents, without getting into dating territory. It feels a little bit like a younger version of E. Lockhart's Ruby Oliver series (both are set in small, unconventional private schools, and feature the ostracism that can follow the dissolving of friendships). However, I didn't find the characterization to be nearly as strong as Lockhart's. Zoe is engaging, and Lucas is interesting, but I had a hard time wrapping my head around Zoe's siblings.
Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Dee's writing:
"Zoe smiled. Dara was always saying things like "sigh" and "gasp," as if she were attaching smiley faces, or frownies, to all her sentences. But at least that way you knew what she was feeling, Zoe thought as she took a crunchy bite of sandwich, then a cooling sip of chocolate milk." (Chapter 1)
"On Thursday morning Zoe went to school determined to make up with Dara. Not that they'd had an actual fight, she reminded herself. But they hadn't spoken to each other since yesterday morning at the lockers, and Zoe couldn't bear to let things go on like this. She felt hollow inside, as if she hadn't eaten in twenty-four hours and no amount of chocolate chip ice cream would make her feel like Zoe." (Chapter 14)
The cryptography aspects were what interested me in this book in the first place. When I was about Zoe's age, I went through a bit of a cryptography phase, cracking codes and solving word puzzles. For me, this book hits its stride when Zoe becomes interested in code-breaking. There are a number of examples, when Lucas shares puzzles with Zoe, and there's an appendix at the end with references for kids who want to learn more. These resources are fun, and Zoe is just more interesting when she's passionate about something. [Though, I have to admit that I would perhaps have liked the book better if Zoe had just discovered a passion for something and worked hard, instead of needing to have some sort of special natural code-breaking gift. But that's just me.]
While Solving Zoe didn't completely work for me, I think that my 10-year-old self would have enjoyed it quite a bit. I think that code-loving kids (and lizard-loving kids) in late elementary school, girls and boys, will like it, too. It's also one to give tweens who don't want to read about any "dating stuff", but want to start thinking about middle school.
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Publication Date: April 21, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author. Note that quotes are from the ARC, and should be compared with the final book (which is available).
Other Blog Reviews: Kiss the Book, Brooks Free Library Book of the Day, Teresa Konopka's Book Reviews, A Patchwork of Books