Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Guest Blogger Post: FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON

Serious books are not always funny, and funny books don’t always incorporate serious topics, but when it is done right a book can really shine. FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks is one of those books. This book shows us Zoe’s life as a preteen. She has all the usual issues from growing and changing friendships to dreams that she wants to pursue. But she has the added layer of not knowing her biological father because he is incarcerated.

Janae Marks chooses to weave together Zoe’s internship at the local bakery and her practice for the Kid’s Baking Challenge audition with letters from her incarcerated father and trying to prove his innocence. By presenting the story in this way, Janae Marks makes this story feel very real and approachable. 

The choice to tell this story in the first person makes it intensely personal; readers are put directly into Zoe’s head and are able to learn with her and solve the puzzle of her father’s innocence right along with her. While many very serious issues are addressed in this novel including the unfair and biased treatment of Black men in the criminal justice system as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Innocence Project, this book never feels heavy.

The frame of letters from her father and his song recommendations help to slowly introduce the idea that Zoe’s father is a person, not a cartoon villain, to both Zoe and the reader. As Zoe’s preconceptions about both her father and the criminal justice system are slowly broken down, the reader also begins to see the whole picture. 

As far as Newbery criteria are concerned, I think FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON really stands out in terms of both themes and presentation of information.

Guest blogger Courtney Hague has worked with youth in public libraries 9 years in 3 different library systems. Once she was a Youth Collection Development Librarian for two years where she got to really dig into her passion for all things related to children’s literature. She is currently a Youth Librarian in St. Louis, Missouri, where she lives with her husband, who is also a librarian, their 3 year old son, and two cats.

Share
Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Courtney, thank you for your thoughtful post. Given that it is challenging to write a novel partly based on a contemporary social issue, how do you think that Marks succeeded in creating her story? Are there specific points where Zoe’s dilemma and her relationships are most sharply focused and personal, avoiding the effect of a merely didactic novel?

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Thanks Courtney, for being the first of our Guest Bloggers! I also like the balance between the engaging first person narration and the serious issues that Zoe wrestles with. The serious stuff starts with the first sentence, and most of that short first chapter is about the letter. But there’s also the part where she hears her Mom coming and there’s a quick digression about Mom singing in the bathroom and Paul “sounding like a dying coyote.” (4) We’re always “directly [in] Zoe’s head,” as Courtney notes, and I think it’s that interior narration that keeps readers engaged: it’s honest and questioning, but also has the randomness of a 12-year-old brain. We do learn a lot about racism and the criminal justice system, but it’s always through Zoe’s voice and experience. Like CHIRP, this seems like a book that will resonate with younger readers who, like Zoe, haven’t thought that much about these issues.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Thank you Courtney. Great job! This is one of three novels I’ve read this year where a Black father’s incarceration is central. The other two are LEAVING LYMON and CLEAN GETAWAY. There are further similarities: all three have an important grandmother character and contrast a caregiver’s bitter feelings about the father with those of the protagonist’s. But the three books couldn’t be any more different. In ZOE, the father is innocent and Zoe is able to prove it and get him freed. He is portrayed with no flaws that I can remember and is really Dream Dad. Before their connection, his incarceration has no discernible impact on Zoe’s life, and their contact primarily serves to increase Zoe’s awareness of issues and give her a wonderful new relationship (albeit one she needs to keep secret from her disapproving mom.) Of the three, I am least convinced by this Interpretation of Theme. Is it really the best approach to presenting the problem of disproportionate incarceration of Black men to children to imply Zoe’s dad is typical?

    In CLEAN GETAWAY, the father (the protagonist’s grandfather) is also innocent, but the situation is more complicated – his White wife let him take the fall for her own crime. Because it is the protagonist’s grandfather, again the incarceration doesn’t directly impact Scoob’s life, but it is central to Scoob’s father’s character and their relationship. The mixed marriage and the road trips (both past and present) offer a comparatively broader scope to illuminate racial issues and their historical development.

    In LYMON, the father’s incarceration affects every aspect of Lymon’s life. Because of that, I think it both the least direct and strongest Interpretation of Theme of the three books. The author didn’t need to make Lymon’s father innocent or without flaw to examine racial issues. Indeed, it could be argued that injustice and systemic problems are more effectively presented by not making them seemingly dependent on the personal qualities of the affected.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I think your points are very valid, Leonard! I will be the first to say that I have a lot of catch-up reading to do and both CLEAN GETAWAY and LEAVING LYMON are still on my TBR list. I will definitely keep your comments in mind when I am reading those two novels. Because I think you might be right. What I liked about this book was its more upbeat tone, but maybe by not giving her father many (if any) flaws and not showing how Zoe’s life was impacted by his incarceration, then maybe the story isn’t as realistic as we would like, especially in regards to the Newbery criteria.

    • Leonard, that is a good point. Would Zoe’s story still have been as compelling if the results of her investigation into her father had brought different results? As you say, social justice does not depend on victims of injustice being perfect human beings. Then again, this is a middle grade novel, so it is more typical to present less nuanced situations.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    Also, ZOE is one of many books this year where the protagonist has a “thing” – a slightly off-the-beaten-path interest or passion. For Zoe, it’s baking. In others, it’s movie makeup/effects (ANY DAY WITH YOU), standup comedy (YUMI CHUNG), and surfing (ONLY BLACK GIRLS IN TOWN). These interests feel largely unintegrated with their books’ exploration of identity, history, and heritage. And with so many examples, it might be considered a formula and therefore a ding against Delineation of Character.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Protagonists with a “thing”…Nicely put, Leonard, and that often gets to me too. In Zoe’s case, I agree that her baking may not serve exploration of identity and heritage, but it does seem intrinsic to her personality. She’s a dreamer with big ideas (entering the contest); she gets ahead of herself (wanting to do more than she’s told as an intern); and she’s truly creative (froot loop cupcakes). And the book needs Zoe to shine as a character, beyond the problems she struggles with. Her baking serves a purpose in Delineation of Character, but yes, the reliance on her “thing” feels less than distinguished. Especially when compared to Bea in THE LIST OF THINGS…, Sam in GAME OF FOX… and some others from this year.

  5. Did anyone else have a moment where they thought maybe Zoe’s mom was the murderer and that’s why she didn’t want Zoe contacting her father? I had to tell myself that no, that can’t happen in middle grade.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      But that’s almost what happens in CLEAN GETAWAY! Not murder, of course, but the grandmother turns out to be the criminal. And she goes to great lengths to prevent Scoob from contacting his father.

    • I did feel like something was up with the mom!

  6. Good job, Courtney! I agree that this is one of the few books to successfully combine fun and serious topics. I think the fact that her dad being in jail doesn’t impact her life is both a strength and a weakness. I agree with your points Leonard and certainly Lymon is more in-depth (and better written). But I also really liked that this was a happy middle class black girl story, not an angsty one. And I think the fact that she’s essentially discovering everything from an outsider’s perspective makes it particularly accessible to kids who also have no experience with the criminal justice system.

    Leonard, I knew you’d have something to say about the one interest kid thing! 😁 I have to say I don’t entirely understand the objection though. That seems like a very normal kid thing to be obsessed with or define yourself by one thing. (I’m a dancer, I’m a soccer player, etc.) And I’m not sure why it would need to interact with their heritage? (Although I think ‘the only black girls in town’ does actually, since it’s all about the experience of being one of the only black kids in a surfing town.)

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Katrina, I am making a very narrow literary objection. If the same method of delineating character appears in many books, it is not “individually distinct.” I say this every year–“most disinguished” is a terribly high bar. I feel bad because when I explain why I think a book may not be Newbery contender, it’s easy to come across as saying I didn’t think it was a good book, but I am not, and I do agree with your “normal” comment.

      On Goodreads, Heavy Medal stalwart, Mr. H wrote of ZOE, “I would love to read a book that focused solely on Zoe competing in that baking championship she was obsessed with” and another HM regular, Kari, agreed with him. To me, a book that could plausibly be broken into two separate books doesn’t get top marks from me for development of plot. That’s where I’m coming from with my “interact with their heritage” comment.

      • I agree that it’s not Newbery-level in a whole bunch of ways. I guess I just don’t agree with this specific objection. 🙂 I mean, how many books are there that use a dead parent as part of building a kid character? But some of them do a better job with it than others. I would think it’s that the characters are supposed to be “individually distinct” (from the others in the book and to feel like complete people), not that the character creation methods need to be individually distinct.

        I actually don’t think of the baking, etc., as character building, more as plot or setting or something. Definitely I agree if you are relying on a hobby to create a character, that character is probably not well-developed!

  7. Julie Corsaro says:

    I actually liked Zoe’s interest in baking, which I admit is a trendy thing, and may date the book, an inherent problem with realistic fiction. I also found it convincing that Zoe was naive about what it would actually mean to have a bakery internship as a 12-year-old (BTW: can a 12-year-old legally have a bakery internship in Massachusetts?). Given Zoe’s naivety, I suppose it can also be argued that her not realizing that her mother has been hiding her father’s birthday letters works –but I’d love to know if young readers caught on to the truth sooner. I’m not sure that Zoe’s lack of experience is consistent with her derring-do when it comes to proving the innocence of her incarcerated father; perhaps, it’s why her best friend has to announce that Zoe is one of the smartest people he knows (or, maybe, it’s simply implausible). As for Zoe’s biological father, I found him to be a bit of wishful thinking (akin to Leonard) as he seemed too-good-to-be true as a young man wrongly imprisoned. I do think this depiction is in keeping with the generally sunny tone of the book, including a prosperous African-American family, as Katrina mentioned — or bi-racial, as I think Zoe’s step-dad is white. But the Newbery Medal is neither for popularity nor didactic content, the latter per Emily’s initial query. I do think From the Desk of Zoe Washington is one of most likable and approachable books published this year that should be in every collection. I just don’t think it merits a spot on the Newbery dais as one of the most distinguished books of the year.

  8. I love all these points, and excellent post, Ms. Courtney.

    From the Desk of Zoe Washington is one of my favorite reads so far this year. I found Zoe’s character to be engaging, and the mix of Zoe’s baking and the larger plot of the mystery would hold kids’ interest. It definitely held mine. I agree about the mother. Her withholding of the letters was obvious. I did get frustrated with Zoe’s stubborness regarding Trevor throughout the first half of the book, but that is probably more authentic with kids of that age than I realize. My favorite aspects of the book were Marcus’s letters, the psongs he sends Zoe for her playlist and the relationship between Zoe and her grandmother. I think the grandmother’s belief in Marcus’s innocence contrasts well with Zoe’s mother’s refusal to believe.
    I did feel that the professor remembering Marcus after finding Zoe’s letter might be a bit contrived, but perhaps I am reading more into that plot point than necessary. It did provide good suspense.

    I think Marks novel is an excellent mystery, and I hope that it does receive some form of recognition.

  9. I think some of these comments are kind of hash and I have a different POV as a Black Native teen. I like this book so much I read it twice. I feel some of the criticisms about it not being realistic have to do with a focus on Black pain as the one authentic experience. I feel the BW authors of the books you’re comparing wouldn’t appreciate it.

    Zoe is upper middle class, I think. That’s legitimate as any Black story. I don’t think her father is a fairytale. He’s a decent man wrongly imprisoned. That happens, you know? I live in Floriduh. No one mentioned The Innocence Project. Maybe you should look it up. You only want incarcerated Black men with rap sheets (I have more than one in my family), because that’s somehow feels more authentic. You also think their kids’ entire lives have to be informed by a parent’s incarceration. That shows a lack of first-hand experience. With poor white kids too.

    ALL kids get interests in different things–like I only want to eat Chicken McNuggets for a year or I try to play the piccolo or want to design video games, That’s perfectly normal. Being Black doesn’t mean we can’t do these same things too or all our “things” have race tags. Is that what you’re getting from news stories? I watch Kids Baking Championship. I’ve seen many self-confident, funny, talented Black girls on the show. Zoe realizes something matters more. Maybe that is a Black or other marginalized kid experience.

    You can volunteer at my library when you’re twelve–and her adventure in the city to find information is empowering and fun. Black girl activists never get the same love. We can enjoy sweets too.

    The book works perfectly in its own way. Native people talk about circles. This story forms one. (I love KC’s KING but I don’t think it finds a shape–more on that when it’s discussed.) I just read EVELYN DEL RAY MOVES AWAY, which also has a bit ahead at the end–I like it!

    I hope the Newbery committee takes this book seriously and like Meredith said it gets some recognition. I’m sure Janae Marks will get stronger as an author. It’s an *AMAZING* debut!!!

    Thanks, Courtney Hague!

    • Julie Corsaro Corsaro says:

      I, too, appreciate all the comments, as they have helped me think more deeply and with greater clarity about this book.

      There are many ways for books to gain recognition other than the Newbery Medal, including being named an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book. Notables is a list of stand-out titles, as opposed to a single top book, as is the case the Newbery medal winner. (Even though it’s not a requirement, there are generally Newbery Honor books, but there’s nothing like being top dog). In addition, there are many state children’s choice awards, which help insure that good books get into the hands of young readers.

      While I just read FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON once (the real committee will re-read all books that receive nominations), my initial take was that it lacked the poetry in the prose of some of the other titles that we will subsequently discuss here, such as Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger. The Newbery criteria does state, “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.” It strikes me that writing style is relevant to all books, but the actual committee will have to weight and balance all the elements in its discussion of each title.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Some of these comments: “You only want incarcerated Black men with rap sheets. . . because that’s somehow feels more authentic.” “You also think their kids’ entire lives have to be informed by a parent’s incarceration” seem directed at comments I made. I’ll try to clarify some of my statements.

      Wrongful imprisonment stories, separate from race, are as old as literature. If that’s what Marks was going for, fine. But if you or the author hope, as I hope, that a reader should come away from this book feeling that there is a problem with our criminal justice system that is rooted in race, then yes I still question some of the literary decisions. As you say, “decent men are wrongfully imprisoned.” But I don’t want a reader to have a chance of concluding “if only the innocent weren’t wrongfully convicted, the criminal justice system would be fine.” Yes, some kids’ lives are not “informed by a parent’s incarceration.” But, to convince a reader of a problem, a book has to show effects. I don’t want a reader to think imprisonment only affects the imprisoned (and so if only the guilty were imprisoned, the system is fine.) As I’ve said before, I am not bashing ZOE. I am comparing it to other books. I am not saying the story told in LYMON is the only story I want, and I am definitely not saying it is the only possible Black story (not in a year with BEFORE THE EVER AFTER, CLEAN GETAWAY, SNAPDRAGON, WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE, and THE ONLY BLACK GIRLS IN TOWN). I am saying that, based on the Newbery Criterion of Interpretation of Theme/Concept, I think, for this particular theme, LYMON did better, and I gave some reasons why I think so.

      I am not sure how my comment got distorted to “kids having interests is not normal” let alone “Black kids should have Black interests.” The Newbery Committee needs to evaluate each book for excellence in Delineation of Character. I gave examples of several books that all used a character’s interest as a primary plot point and a means of presenting character. And all of these books also had a largely separate exploration of identity (Black, Filipino, and Korean, in the examples I gave). The point I was trying to make is that if multiple books are doing similar things, it is harder to argue that any of them are individually distinct.

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        After a mistake last week (mea culpa), I didn’t engage directly with these comments because political arguments aren’t the same as literary arguments — and the Newbery remains a literary award. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the character of Zoe’s father was NOT wrongly incarcerated. He was. But his development as a secondary character is superficial. As someone who has served on the Newbery committee and been the consultant to all the ALSC award committees, I know full well that only books that are eligible in the year under consideration are discussed. But it’s hard not to think of Colson Whitehead’s THE NICKEL BOYS for a fully humanized portrait of a young black man wrongly incarcerated that is accessible to Ya’s.

  10. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I’m trying to think about where Zoe’s dad lands, and should land, in the area of character development and contributing to themes. Leonard makes a good comparison to LEAVING LYMON, noting that “In LYMON, the father’s incarceration affects every aspect of Lymon’s life.” But Zoe’s story is different. Her father’s incarceration has been more in the background Once the letter arrives he becomes more important to her. What she learns about him and about racism and justice change the way she looks at things, but so do other things: her ups and downs with Trevor, the baking challenges, her relationship with her mom. The author made a decision to make Marcus innocent and to depict his character about as positively as Zoe could have wished. I think that works in terms of how the thread about Marcus influences Zoe’s character development. Choosing not to dive too deeply into the complexities of racism and the justice system seems appropriate for an elementary school age audience, many of whom might not have thought of the topic at all yet. I don’t think Marcus needs to be more fully developed…but the way it does work out so nicely may make the book’s impact just a little less powerful.

Speak Your Mind

*