Goodreads: From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime?
A crime he says he never committed.
Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.
But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.
Initially, I admit that I was unsure I would like From the Desk of Zoe Washington, despite all the critical acclaim. Zoe came across as whiny and immature, and it was difficult for me to cheer her on as she lied to her parents and ignored her best friend. This was compounded by the fact that I was listening to the audiobook, and the narrator seemed to be pitching her voice a little younger than I think someone Zoe’s age would sound. However, as the story progressed, I found myself interested in Zoe’s quest to uncover the truth around her father, and deeply invested in her last-minute attempt to evade her parents and interview a potential alibi witness. The book may not start strong, but it certainly ends in a powerful way.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington is one of those books with an important theme that it can feel awkward to critique. That is, because the book deals with the disproportionate incarceration of Black men, and because it deals with the potential for the judicial system to sentence innocent people to prison, suggesting the desire for things like a more even plotline or stronger characterization may seem, to some, beside the point. Nevertheless, even books that address serious issues should tell an effective story, or they may lose their readers. From the Desk of Zoe Washington almost lost me due to its annoying protagonist.
While I acknowledge that children in books will, of course, come across as young and immature at times because they are children, something about Zoe really grated on me. The book starts with her keeping secrets from her parents; refusing to talk to her best friend for an unspecified reason that she will not reveal to said friend, never mind the readers; and complaining that the professionals at the bakery where she has an “internship” will not let her do their jobs because, even though she’s a child, she’s most definitely just as good as they are. Each of these aspects bothered me for different reasons–Zoe’s constant lies with the aid of her grandmother required a bit of suspension of disbelief, I really hate books where suspense is created by artificially withholding important information from the reader, and I just did not sympathize with a twelve-year-old moping about because her internship does not include her baking complicated cupcakes on her first day. (Also, are twelve-year-olds even legally allowed to hold internships?) Cumulatively, all of these aspects had me considering DNFing the book.
Once the book reaches the midpoint, however, things pick up. Zoe forgives her best friend just in time for him to agree to go on a secret trip to interview an alibi witness that her father’s lawyer ignored during the trial. This subplot, while not really a good idea, adds drama to the story, and managed to keep my interest more than Zoe’s desire to be on a kids’ baking show. Her budding relationship with her biological father also strengthens the story. Zoe goes from distrusting him to wanting to believe in his innocence. Seeing the two reconnect nearly brought me to tears.
While From the Desk of Zoe Washington had a rough start (for me, at least), I was ultimately glad that I stuck it out and finished the book. The story ended up being a heartwarming tale of one girl reconnecting with the father she never knew, and teaching the adults around her to give him a second chance. Recommended for fans of middle-grade contemporaries.