Review by Annie Cronin Romano
FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020) is a delightful mix of mystery and cupcakes! When Zoe, who dreams of becoming a famous baker, receives a letter from her incarcerated father on her 12th birthday, she finds herself determined to prove the innocence of this man she's never met. Her mother, however, wants Zoe to have nothing to do with her dad, so Zoe must sneak around in her efforts to correspond with her father and uncover the truth. A novel about the power of hope, forgiveness, and believing in others.
Janae Marks takes a difficult subject (isolation from a parent) and makes it accessible to young readers in a gentle yet direct manner. Her handling of the father’s incarceration is presented thoughtfully, and the novel address faults and injustices in the legal system using an approach middle grade readers will understand. FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON is a solid mentor text for presenting social issues in an accessible, skillful way. The parallel plot of Zoe’s love of baking is seamlessly woven in with her pursuit to prove her father’s innocence, making this novel a prime example of how two strong parallel plots can work together to add dimension to the novel while simultaneously moving the main character’s story forward.
To learn more about Janae Marks’ work, visit her website at www.janaemarks.com.
~by Amanda Smith
Noah is a pretty typical middle schooler. He attends a small school where everybody knows everybody’s business, and the biggest news is who’s kissing who behind the storage shed. Yet, in Noah’s family, the Thing That Happened silently rules their household and interactions. As Noah’s sister, Emma, becomes increasingly controlling about food, Noah notices signs that The Thing is happening again, but his parents’ denial and efforts to keep Emma from relapsing cause Noah to suppress his own concerns. He frustration grows as his best friends bicker and fall out over, what seems to Noah, insignificant issues, while his family is unraveling.
STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS (2016, Candlewick Press) explores eating disorders and their effect on family members from a sibling’s point of view. Noah’s love and concern for Emma contrasts with his inability to understand why she makes herself sick, and his anger at her for doing so. Knowles illustrates these conflicting emotions in Noah’s response towards Curly, the school cat, who is, like Emma, stressed, frail, vulnerable and adored.
With a gentle touch, spots of bright humor, an interesting cast of secondary characters, and a loveable, believable main character, this thoughtful novel will have readers laughing out loud while reaching for the Kleenex. With empathy, Jo Knowles shows us the devastating effect of depression and eating disorders on families, while emphasizing the importance of relationships (with friends, parents, teachers, and pets) in times of crises.
Jo Knowles has a wonderful ability to reveal character in bite-size bits. When she first introduces a new character, she gives a short description, but builds on that description throughout the novel. This mirrors the little-bits-at-a-time way in which we get to know people in the real world, and results in readers feeling as if they’re gaining a circle of new friends.
In STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, Knowles also employs the animal characters in various ways. They are not just pets, but Curly and Captain offer comic relief, evoke empathy, and drive home points about characters and events in the story.
In the same way, food is used throughout the novel to convey emotions, illustrate differences, build tension, amp-up turning points, and reveal aspects of Noah’s character. Using food as a device in a novel about eating disorders is pure Jo Knowles brilliance!
To learn more about Jo Knowles and her books, visit her website www.joknowles.com/
In this video clip, Jo talks about the inspiration for the hilarious chapter titles for STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS.
~ Review by Amanda Smith
Some books blink on writers’ radars long before they become common knowledge. These books show up in a plethora of kidlit groups; in Harold Underdown’s posts with comment threads as long as my arm; and on agents’ wish lists. MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY (2016, Walden Pond Press) is one of those books, and so, when it finally appeared on my library shelf, I expected literary greatness. I expected my need for boxes and boxes of Kleenex. It absolutely exceeded those expectations. What I did not expect was the laugh-out-loud humor. I’m not talking a giggle or a guffaw here. More than once I exasperated my family with outbursts of knee-slapping laughter. John David Anderson’s sharp humor is exactly what this book needed to balance the heart-wrenching story.
Ms. Bixby is that one teacher, that if you were really lucky, you had the honor of knowing. A Good One. The teacher who really sees you, the one for whom you want to be your very best, the one who makes even the boring stuff fun. And Ms. Bixby has cancer. In fact, she is so sick that she cannot even make her Last Day party at school.
But Brand, one of her sixth graders, still has something important left to say to her. He enlists his friends, Steve and Topher, to help him follow through on his plan to give her the perfect last day, not realizing that both his friends need to see to her as much as he does. Because, just as she saw him, she saw each one of them.
Told in three alternating first person narratives, the voices of the three boys, Anderson takes us along on their mission. Snippets of information about each character are carefully unpacked through what these characters show of themselves, and what they know (and don’t know) about their two friends. We get to know their strengths, insecurities, family life and what Ms. Bixby means to each of them, both from the character’s own point of view, and the others’ points of view. We see how they individually, but with the help of their friends, overcome their respective major obstacles, making it possible for them to bid Ms. Bixby goodbye.
MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY left some hilarious images burned in my mind forever – I will never look at cheesecake the same way. It has given my son and me some precious shared quotes like “I was in the basement, eating a body”… “Biscotti”. But more than that, MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY reminded me to see my children and my students; to recognize everyone has a back story, or a struggle; and to see things through no matter what.
John David Anderson is masterful at showing instead of telling. He never tells the reader outright what the characters’ struggles are, but he meticulously unfurls each character until the reader has a complete picture of Band, Steve, Topher, Ms. Bixby and the supporting cast.
MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY is also a study in voice. Anderson provides an engaging introduction of each character, their voices so distinct, that at the end of each character’s first paragraph, the reader already has a strong sense of each kid’s personality.
“Rebecca Roudabush has cooties, I’m not making this up. We’ve run tests. She came up positive on the cootometer, all red, off the charts.” (Topher, the creative boy with a vivid imagination)
“We found out on Tuesday. I was wearing a red sweater. Not bright red. More of a maroon, like the color of cherries – real cherries, not the ones you find in canned fruit that tastes a little like medicine.” (Steve, the detail-oriented, analytical stats-wizard)
“You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. That’s something my dad told me. Turns out … not entirely true.” (Brand, the rough-around-the-edges tough guy who idolizes his dad.)
Don’t you already love these three boys? By the end of the book you will be completely won over, cheering them on to succeed. In true Ms. Bixby fashion.
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