I am guilty of judging a book by its cover. Having read nothing about it, I picked out Zebra Forest (Candlewick, $15.99, ages 9-12) by Adina Rishe Gewirtz because I thought it was a middle grade novel about WWII with the forest alluding to children escaping from Nazis and hiding out in the woods. I could not have been more wrong and more pleasantly surprised.
When I discovered the book was about a brother and sister living with their depressed grandmother as the Iran hostage crisis of Jimmy Carter’s presidency played out, I had to read on having followed it closely back in ’79. Plus the characters of Annie and Rew were so compelling and real, that I had to learn their story.
Zebra Forest is so much more than a sibling story. It’s a clever, well-crafted novel that captures the voices of the children, their roller coaster emotions along with the ambiguousness of their past and present, and hence their identities.
Annie had three real wishes that summer when Zebra Forest begins.
1. Get tall.
2. Have an adventure.
3. Meet my father.
Only she could never meet her father because he was dead, killed in a fight with an angry man who was then sent away. And her mom, claiming it was the dad who’d wanted her to have kids, had deserted the family, leaving her two little ones with their paternal grandmother. What a legacy for two children to carry around. Couple that with a grandmother who had more bad days than good ones, mostly leaving the children to fend for themselves and you have the makings of an engaging, dramatic story. Infused with just the right amount of suspense, humor and pathos, Zebra Forest is a different sort of page turner. There are lies to unravel and family secrets to uncover. When a nearby prison break occurs and an escapee barges into the children’s home and holds them hostage, relationships will be tested and truths will be told.
The metaphor of the Zebra Forest being a place of camouflage mimics the lives of Annie and Rew who have been trying to sort out what is real and what is fiction in their own lives. Living without TV and limited contact with the outside world, brother and sister have created their own imaginary worlds where the identities of people are also not what they seem. Here, Gewirtz’s intertwining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island throughout the novel is brilliant and apt. Rew and Annie have taken the limited resources available at home and filled their daily lives with adventure and play acting, but when the intruder’s presence creates tension between Annie, Rew and Gran, what can be done to keep this family together?
I recommend this bittersweet tale because it’s a great conversation starter if parents take the time to read it, too. As middle graders are moving more towards asserting their individualism, Zebra Forest will prove a perfect companion for this complicated time of life.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel