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Middle-school librarians Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan prove that two heads are better than one when it comes to discussing YA and children's books

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Friday, March 29, 2013 10:06 am
Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Zebra ForestCindy: I was totally sucked in by the cover of Zebra Forest (Candlewick 2013). Add the promise of family secrets and I’m in. Annie and Rew live with a grandma who has good days…and bad. Annie has three wishes:

1. Get tall.

2. Have an adventure.

3. Meet my father.

She realizes her chances are slim of any of them materializing. Her Gran is short, her father dead, and adventure seems unlikely. But she would be wrong. One day a man enters the house, locks the kitchen door and pockets the key and tells the kids that if they stay quiet no one will get hurt.

“I’ll stay only as long as I need. Just stay quiet and you’ll be fine.”

Rew is having none of that and tries to use the phone, which the man rips out of his hands and then the wall. Then Rew tries to make a run for it out the door at which point the man grabs Annie by the throat and threatens to harm her if Rew leaves. It’s at this point that Gran shows up at the top of the stairs and yells at the man by name and tells him to let her Annie B. go.

Annie says that stories about her family are always short…or too well worn to be retold. But every family has stories…some more secret than others…and as the truths and lies unfold in Gewirtz’s debut novel the stark contrast of the zebra forest of white birches and black maples begins to show more shades of gray. This slim novel uses an economy of words but the emotions are clearly wrought. Pages can’t turn fast enough and young readers will be hooked…and might wonder what secrets lurk in the zebra forests of their families.

Amid the tension there are a few chuckles, like when the man holding them captive admits that he once wanted to be a librarian.

“I thought they read all day.”

If only.

Lynn:  Cindy raved about this one and she was so right!  Talk about a page-turner!  Don’t start this if you don’t have time to tear through it immediately because that is exactly what you will want to do.  But this is far more than just a suspenseful thriller.  There is meat to this book.  Are people all bad or all good?  What shades of grey are important to consider and should we?  Should promises be kept completely or are there times when it is OK to break one?  How important is loyalty and what role does forgiveness play?  Can one person in a family forgive and another not?  Fascinating discussions just leap out of this book and one of things I like best is that this is a book that can be read and discussed with a fairly young age group.  The thematic issues raised are issues that younger readers can understand and explore yet the discussions can be at a very high level as well.  Because the book is short, I think it would make a terrific class read-aloud as well.  Many of the issues are raised long before the end of the book so discussion opportunities are plentiful throughout.  A somewhat open-ended conclusion leaves plenty to debate at the end as well.  The suspenseful storyline will capture and hold the most wiggly of students and have them begging for just one more chapter.  And who knows – it may spark a run on Treasure Island as well!


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