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Summary: Annie(11) and her brother Rew (9) live with her grandmother in a town called Sunshine. It isn't the best of circumstances - Gran is mentally unstable, so Annie steps in to fill the role of homemaker early in life. Still, she and Rew find time to enjoy themselves as kids. They love to spend time among the black and white birches in the woods behind Gran's house. They also like to use their imagination, and they create elaborate stories about what happened to their father based on news items the ready. Then, one night when a man named Andrew Snow breaks into the house, they learn the truth. Andrew is their father, he is not dead, he has been serving a sentence for murder in the jail across the street from Gran's house, and he just broke out of prison. While he is hiding in the house, he discovers his mother's deteriorating mental condition, and just how much his children - especially Annie - do to keep the family together. Where Annie is curious and wants answers, Rew is angry and wants to turn Andrew in to the police. Will the family survive the truth? There are many layers to this middle grade novel set in the 1970s during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Type of Reading: family reading, independent reading, read aloud book
Recommended Age: read together: 10 and Up; read yourself: 10 and Up
Young Reader Reaction: Zebra Forest has a very interesting premise and is written very well. The small cast of characters makes this story very personal and focused, something that I think is valuable. That said, even though the part of the story where Andrew stays in the house is well written, the characters stay flat, with the exception of Annie. Rew is always angry and withdrawn and resents the similarities in interests with his father, to the point of being overdone. There are also some gaps: the social worker is content to talk to Annie outside (Andrew is inside); there was lots of discussion about Andrew before he broke into the house, so it wasn't a surprise that he was alive.
I liked the way that the author used the kitchen and food to make Andrew more human as a character. They allowed him to forge a better connection with his children. Zebra Forest might be a good book to read with a middle school class. It would allow them to explore the way that troubled families interact, a topic which is difficult to teach to children. I would recommend this book, but would warn readers that the end is weak and does not conclude the plot well.
Adult Reader Reaction: Review pending.
Pros: Realistic characters and a family-centric plot add depth to this novel for middle grade readers.
Cons: Rew's 180 in his attitude toward his father at the end seems sudden and forced.
Borrow or Buy: Borrow, at least. This is definitely a story that will stay with you and is worth reading.
Educational Themes: Although the story is focused on the Snow family, there are other elements to the story that can be drawn out. The Iran Hostage Crisis is a piece of history not often talked about, and this could be a jumping off point for more books about this subject. Similarly, readers might head to the library to pick up a copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Notes: A Reading Tub® volunteer submitted this review. She borrowed the book from their local library.
Literary Categories: Fiction - family, grandparents, middle grade, 1970s, death and loss
Date(s) Reviewed: August 2014
Other Reviews: See Critics Reviews at barnesandnoble.com; and reviews and reader feedback at amazon.com.