Sam would probably make a better Newbery committee member than I would, at least in one sense. He's much better than I am at watching for the outliers - the books that aren't getting as much buzz, the debut novels, etc. I don't always agree with his assessment of them, but sometimes he uncovers a gem like Zebra Forest, which did receive one starred review, but which is otherwise flying somewhat under the radar.
I think it deserves more attention, and whether you will agree with me will depend heavily on whether you think the twist is a heavy-handed coincidence or shrewd piece of plotting.
Ok. I'll put this behind a big caps-locked SPOILER, even though the twist comes in chapter 7 (out of 39).
I think it was a deliberate choice and not all coincidence that Annie, Rew, and Gran were living just across the zebra forest from the prison where Andrew Snow (Annie and Rew's father; Gran's son) was incarcerated. It's completely in character for Gran to have stopped visiting her son, disappeared from her last known address, and then, in order to make some sort of symbolic amends, to keep vigil almost within sight of his prison cell. This is a book filled with conflicted characters who are constantly cutting off their noses to spite their own faces.
They're also some of the most interesting characters I've encountered in middle grade fiction this year. Middle grade books are full of broken families and unsuitable guardians, but in this case I believed in them. Gran is about the same age as my own grandparents, and I recognized the habits of that generation in her. Her struggles with mental illness also rang true, as did the coping strategies of the two children.
Plot-wise, I was surprised by the author's choice to front-load all of the major action. As I said, the big reveal comes not even 25% of the way through the book, which means that the reader's interest must then be sustained, somehow, for the next 150+ pages. As the tension of the hostage situation gradually gives way to the revelation of family secrets, the pacing never seems to drag.
And then, of course, there's the setting - the isolated house, the forest that's almost a character in its own right, and the very specific and carefully chosen historical moment (during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980). These are all vividly drawn, and help to underscore the themes of moral choices and the way secrets hold us prisoner.
Not bad, Zebra Forest. Not bad at all.