Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz is a forthcoming title from Candlewick Press (publication date April 2013). It is a beautifully written book about eleven-year-old protagonist Annie, who lives with her younger brother Rew (short for Andrew) and her Gran at the edge of Zebra Forest. At the end of the school year, she writes down a list of three wishes for the summer, the things that she hopes will happen in the few short months before she has to start school again. She wishes to grow taller, to have an adventure, and to meet her father. Annie explains that these are all impossible wishes: “First of all, I was short and, if Gran was any indication, likely to stay that way…Adventures were scarce in Sunshine, a small town of what Mrs. Roberts called ‘some two thousand souls,’ as if it were populated by ghosts…[and] I could never meet my father. My father was dead.” Still, she writes the three wishes down and goes home to start her summer.
Annie is used to staying around home, helping her Gran with the day-to-day routines that she has trouble with. Annie does all of the grocery shopping, lugging home bags full of groceries from the small grocery store in town, instead of the large supermarket that she once lost her brother Rew in. Because of their living situation, Annie has become an excellent liar; she explains that this is something that she has in common with her Gran. Lying, Annie says, allows her to be a good storyteller, and that, “Rew could think better than I could, but I told the better story, probably because I was a good liar, something Gran had trained me in when I was little.” After Annie and Rew moved in with their Gran when they were very young, they stayed at home, homeschooled because, “[Gran] didn’t hold with institutions…or being locked up in a big building all day. That was back when she talked more and brooded less, though she still brooded often enough even then.” When Adele Parks, a social worker, starts checking in on them and sends Annie and Rew off to school, Annie learns quickly how to cover up the reality of living with her Gran, especially the wide difference between her Gran’s good days and bad days. Annie and Rew spend most of their time reading the second half of Treasure Island to one another (the first half of the book is missing from their copy), and acting out scenes from the book.
But at the beginning of the summer, something happens at the house at the edge of Zebra Forest that makes Annie think this summer might be different than all of the ones that came before. When a man breaks into the house, escaped from the prison that stands on the other side of Zebra Forest, he takes the small family of three hostage and refuses to let them leave the house. And as Annie and Rew get to know the man, they start to realize just how good of a liar their Gran is, and just what, exactly, she has been hiding.
Gewirtz’s writing reminds me of Sharon Creech’s, in that they both seem to be able to turn a very simple description into a lyrical and poetic line. Annie has a voice similar to Zinny Taylor in Chasing Redbird, but comes across as much younger that Creech’s character (and she is only eleven in Zebra Forest). Gewirtz’s writing also makes possible the transformation of Zebra Forest into a character, as Annie explains, “We called it the Zebra Forest because it looked like a zebra. Its trees were a mix of white birch and chocolate oak, and if you stood a little ways from it, like at our house looking across the back field that was our yard, you saw stripes, black and white, that went up into green.”
The only criticism I have of the book is the focus on a television program Annie watched over at her friend Beth’s house, The Iran Crisis: American Held Hostage. Annie continuously references the story, the fact that it aired on ABC, and the comparison it makes to the hostage situation happening at her own house. I think that the historical connection is interesting to make in terms of Annie’s own understanding of current events across the world and her own ability to make comparisons with personal and impersonal experience, but the number of times the reference is made makes the event repetitive and meaningless. I like that Gewirtz sets up the comparison, but she can also provide readers with the credit to continue to make the connection as the story goes on, without continuously bringing up the historical event in every chapter. There is a point where nothing new is said about the Iran Crisis, nor does its mention contribute to Annie’s own story.
For its beautiful writing and surprising story, I would recommend picking up Zebra Forest when it is out next April.