Book: Zebra Forest
Author: Adina Rishe Gewirtz
Age Range: 9-12
Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz is a dark, brooding novel for middle grade readers. Eleven-year-old Annie and her younger brother Rew live with their Gran in a house that backs up to a wood that they call the Zebra Forest. Gran is just barely able to care for the children, taking to her bed for days at a time. But their small, broken family is managing. Right up to the day that an escaped prisoner breaks in and holds the family hostage. The rest of the book takes place primarily in the house, as an unexpected connection between the prisoner and the family is revealed. Other long-hidden family secrets eventually come out, too.
Zebra Forest is set during the time of the Iran hostage crisis, in the summer of 1980. This choice serves two purposes. It allows Gewirtz to draw parallels between Annie and Rew's situation and that of the hostages, and it sets the story in a less-connected time, when it is plausible that a family could just vanish into their home, with no outside contact, for an extended period. Annie's family doesn't even have a television set - the isolation of the four people in the house is near-total.
I did have a bit of an issue with the central coincidence on which the story is based, though discussing it would be a bit of a spoiler. Suffice it to say that I kept waiting for the author to find a way to explain it, to make it not a coincidence, without satisfaction. But for readers who can suspend belief on that one point, Zebra Forest is a compelling story. The characters are all complex, and Gewirtz doesn't take the easy way out in resolving their interpersonal conflicts. There is growth and healing in the book, but not so much as to feel implausible. Most of the tension in the book is around relationships and secrets, rather than dramatic action. Gewirtz's taut prose keeps readers turning the pages.
""I don't like people snooping around," she said. "We're enough for each other, aren't we?"
I always told her yes, of course we were. And on her good days, it was even true. But by the end of sixth grade, I'd counted more bad days than good, more days when Gran didn't wake until noon, and then only got up to sit in the kitchen, staring through the windows at the Zebra, grinding the tip of her slipper into the linoleum until it left little bits of gray rubber scattered like eraser dust on the floor." (Chapter 2)
"I woke to a noise. The lights were still on, and Rew was asleep on the floor, head between a couple of stray pawn.
Someone was rattling the back door in the kitchen. We never locked it, but it stuck, and if you rattled it once or twice, it opened. I got up, stepping on Rew in the process, and made my way to the kitchen just as the back door opened, and a man stepped in.
I blinked, trying to make sense of him." (Chapter 6)
A theme one sees fairly often in children's books is the kids protecting their dysfunctional caregiver from the scrutiny of the system, because their imperfect home is better than the alternative. Gewirtz handles this sub-text well, through small examples.
Zebra Forest is not an upbeat novel. But it's full of moments and characters that ring true, set in a suspenseful atmosphere. Zebra Forest is a book that will stay with the reader long after the relatively slim text is finished. Recommended for kids who enjoy suspense and kids who enjoy novels about dysfunctional families.
Publisher: Candlewick (@candlewick)
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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