Wednesday, August 21, 2013

2014 Contenders: Zebra Forest, by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Annie and Rew know almost nothing about their immediate family. Nearly all the information they have is that their mother left so long ago that they don't even know her name, and that their father was killed in a fight with an angry man in the equally distant past. Their Gran, whose mental state is questionable at best, refuses to answer any further questions on the subject.

Nonetheless, Annie and Rew are happy enough, spending their days outside in the forest, spinning tales about the lives their father might have lived. But after a riot at the nearby prison, an escaped convict enters their house, bringing with him answers -- answers that Annie and Rew may not want to hear after all.

Zebra Forest is Adina Rishe Gewirtz's first novel, and it marks the entrance of a stunning new voice. The prose sings, without ever feeling like it's not being narrated by an 11-year-old. Particularly impressive is the way the titular forest becomes such an integral part of the narrative, its significance shifting and expanding as the book goes on.

It's also interesting to see how Gewirtz uses another text (Stevenson's classic Treasure Island) to inform her story. We've seen a lot of books use this tactic this year, from The Center of Everything to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library. Gewirtz's use might be my favorite, however, given how cleverly both the content of the original novel and the abbreviated state of Annie and Rew's copy (it's missing the first several chapters) intertwine with the plot of Zebra Forest. It's nicely done indeed.

Critics of the book might question the huge coincidence that sets off the main plot (that this particular escapee would choose this particular house), and there's something a tad melodramatic about the scene where Rew dashes out in the thunderstorm. I wasn't particularly bothered by either, but I could see a more plot-oriented reader than me being put off.

For me, Zebra Forest is probably my second-favorite book of the year so far, ahead of The Water Castle, but still behind The Real Boy. My guess is that's a lock for the Notables list, and a possibility for the Newbery (or at least an Honor). I look forward to seeing more discussion about the novel's strengths and weaknesses -- and to seeing what Gewirtz has up her sleeve next.

Published in April by Candlewick


  1. I love this one, too. Hope to see more discussion about it in the next few months.

  2. I really enjoyed this one ...the language is just beautiful.

  3. This is one of our early contenders for our Mock Newbery (in Cincinnati this January) - definitely one of the stronger books I've read this year.