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From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks – Book Review

Title: From the Desk of Zoe Washington

Author: Janae Marks

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books

Release Date: January 14, 2020

RATING: 4 Stars

During the summer after sixth grade, Zoe Washington focused on baking, hoping to be selected for the Food Network’s next Kids Baking Challenge. However, her focus wavers when she receives a letter for her birthday. It is from Marcus, her incarcerated father. While Zoe knows about Marcus, her mother has forbade her to communicate with him. Zoe’s curiosity gets the best of her and she begins to secretly write back-and-forth with Marcus, including with the help of her grandmother. When Marcus tells Zoe that he is innocent, she is stunned to learn that a person could possibly be put in jail despite their innocence. Determined to help Marcus, Zoe commits to help learn the truth and free her father. Along the way, she discovers how unfair the justice system is, especially for Black people like her and Marcus. As she does, her own secrets start growing. If the legs on which they stand cannot bear them, Zoe’s progress may come up just short when the truth comes out.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a compelling, thought-provoking story for both middle grades readers and the genre’s older fans. Author Janae Marks crafts realistic characters with realistic flaws. And still, these flaws reflect typical nature. They come from a good place and are grounded in people trying to do what they think is right. The conflicts that emerge from the motivation to do right will inspire spirited debate among readers. While baking, friendship, and family relationships are sprinkled throughout the story, Marcus’s plight remains solidly front-and-center as the narrative’s predominant element. Despite his innocence, he is stuck in jail, resigning himself to a racist system stacked against him. So how is it that Zoe, a 12 year-old, can accomplish more in a few short weeks than Marcus’s defense lawyer and appeals lawyer could do in years? While her effectiveness might strike some as unrealistic, it also could be seen as powerfully illustrating the justice system’s blatant and grievous shortcomings. From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a wonderful, middle grades read that addresses a range of issues related to the criminal justice system, demonstrating how an unfair system has far-reaching consequences.

Middle grades students deserve to read From the Desk of Zoe Washington. Myriad of young adult novels address the criminal justice system, but this story finds a thoughtful balance in doing so. It includes resonant themes of family and friendships alongside the bitter fight against systemic racism. Young readers will surely connect with the references to baking and music playlists, but still having their perspective of the justice system challenged by Marcus’s experiences. When paired with nonfiction texts on the criminal justice system, its systemic racism, and statistics on black incarceration, From the Desk of Zoe Washington can be even more emotive, giving a name (in Marcus) to countless others that have also suffered his plight.

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the Innocence Project.
  • Literature Circles – Use novel for small groups or choice reading with a variety of novels that address systemic racism and injustice.
  • Book Club or Book Exchange – Share the novel with students that enjoy reading about themes of social justice and the criminal justice system.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • Innocence Project
  • Black Lives Matter Movement
  • Criminal Justice System
  • Justice System Statistics

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with From the Desk of Zoe Washington. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Stamped, Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)

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