Review by Jakki Licare
From the Desk of Zoe Washington
By Janae Marks
This synopsis contains spoilers
Zoe, an aspiring baker, receives a letter on her 12th birthday from her biological father, Marcus, who is incarcerated for murder. She’s sure her mother won’t let her read his letter so she secretly hides it. She isn’t sure if she should write back because her bio dad must be a monster to have murdered someone. But he sounds so nice in the letter that Zoe decides to write back just this once to see if she can get some answers. As she’s trying to write back to her dad, her ex-best friend and next-door neighbor, Trevor, tries to hang out with her. After making it clear that they aren’t friends anymore, Zoe finishes her letter and mails it.
Zoe discovers that the Food Network is auditioning kids for a children’s baking show, and she begs her mom and step dad to let her audition. They aren’t sure if she’s ready, but they agree to think about it and even get her an internship at a local bakery. Over the next couple of weeks, Zoe sneaks out letters as she writes back and forth with Marcus. Zoe tells Marcus about her job at the bakery and how she wants to make her own recipe. Marcus tells her about his life in prison and how he’s going to college online. He suggests she tries to make a cereal cupcake.
After some prodding from Zoe, Marcus confesses that he’s innocent of his crime, but had a bad lawyer and ended up wrongly convicted. Zoe wants to continue writing to Marcus, but doesn’t like hiding it from her mom, so she asks her mom if she can write to Marcus. Her mother absolutely refuses, and Zoe decides she must keep lying.
Zoe is sickened by the idea that her dad is innocent and stuck in jail, but what if he’s just lying to her? Zoe decides to do some research at the library. Trevor finds her reading books about incarceration, and he listens as she explains that she wants to find out if her dad is really innocent. He helps her research and they start to talk. Zoe confesses she heard him bad mouth her to his basketball friends. Trevor apologizes and they decide to work things out.
Zoe decides she must find Marcus’s alibi witness and find out if Marcus is telling the truth or not. She begs Marcus for the name of his alibi witness and sets off trying to find the lady he met at a tag sale. She hits a lot of dead ends, but with Trevor’s help she stumbles across the person who fits the description Marcus gave her.
Unable to reach the woman by email, Zoe and Trevor sneak off to Harvard, where she teaches. When they find her, she says she doesn’t remember Marcus. Zoe is devastated that she trusted Marcus. She thinks that he must have been lying to her and that he did kill someone. Zoe and Trevor get back late, and their parents are furious that they ran off. While Zoe is waiting for her mom to get home, she gets a text from the professor saying she does remember Marcus and to call her back.
Zoe’s mom is furious when she finds out why Zoe went to Harvard on her own and absolutely livid to discover that she’s been secretly writing to Marcus. She takes away Zoe’s phone before she can call the professor back. Several days later Zoe’s mom and step dad tell her they’ve been in contact with the professor and that she did have an alibi for Marcus.
Over the next several weeks, a friend of her stepdad who is a lawyer and lawyers from the Innocence Project work together to assemble a case to appeal Marcus’s verdict. When they take it to trial, Marcus and his attorneys win. At the end, Zoe’s mom admits that she was wrong about Marcus and shouldn’t have thrown out Zoe’s letters. Zoe is still grounded for lying and running off to Harvard, but she uses the time to reconnect with her family. On his next birthday, Marcus gets to celebrate with his family at home. And while Zoe never realizes her dream to audition for the Food Network show, she does create a cupcake based on her dad’s suggestion, and the bakery where she’s interning adds it to their menu. She’s proud to take this as a success.
Janae Marks’ uplifting and timely contemporary novel takes you on a quest for justice that is filled with memorable characters and strong friendships. From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a compelling introduction for kids to the problem of racism in our justice system and will open up a lot of meaningful discussions.
Zoe is a spunky, upbeat, and determined twelve-year-old middle-class twelve-year-old. It’s her determination that ultimately brings about Marcus’s appeal, but we also see Zoe’s determination through multiple facets of her life. I love how she’s willing to prove to her parents she’s ready to audition for the Food Network. I like how she gives herself her own challenges too. No one asks her to come up with her own recipe, but she tackles that task and the problems involved in creating her own recipe herself. She doesn’t give up after the first batch of cupcakes comes out too sweet, but instead spends her time problem solving. She creates a system of small batches of cupcakes with different amounts of sugar until she finds the perfect recipe.
Marks tackles the incredibly complex issue of wrongful incarceration with beautiful sensitivity. This is highlighted in the way Marks slowly changes commonly held views of prisoners. Zoe starts off reading her father’s letter and being surprised that he sounds nice instead of like a scary villain from a tv show. Marks also debunks the idea that only guilty people go to jail, a concept that many young readers may not understand. She introduces statistics on how black men are more likely to go to jail than white men and shows that an indifferent lawyer can lead to wrongful conviction.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington never feels depressing because Marks balances Zoe’s ambition of becoming a pastry chef along with her father’s storyline. Marks even manages to tie the two together by having Marcus make a suggestion in his letter to make a cereal cupcake. Forgiveness is a strong theme in From the Desk of Zoe Washington. In the beginning, Zoe is not speaking to her best friend Trevor, and he has no clue why. It isn’t until almost halfway through the book that we learn she heard Trevor dissing her to his teammates.
Marks does a superb job in showing how awkward it is to discuss hurt feelings but also how necessary it is to talk them through so there’s a chance for understanding and forgiveness. Here’s how Zoe describes her impressions of their conversation: “But it was like when you drew something in pencil and then tried to erase it—the pencil lines would mostly go away, but sometimes the indent would still be there, so you could still sort of see what had been erased. That’s how Trevor’s apology felt….”
Zoe’s mom also has her own issues with talking through problems. She’s so devastated by Marcus’s arrest that she closes off her heart and is unwilling to let Marcus hurt her baby. Zoe’s mom apologizes at the end, but Marks gives us enough of the scenario to see why Zoe’s Mom felt so betrayed. I think kids can relate to and learn a lot from these story lines leading to an understanding of how to open up to others.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an outstanding middle-grade read for those interested in social justice and the intricacies of family relationships and friendship. If your kids enjoy Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous or Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, then From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a must read.
Parental Considerations: racism, racial slurs, and talk of murder.
Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins, 2020 | ISBN 978-0062875853
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