Zebra Forest. 2013. Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 200 pp.
Genre: Young adult novel
Ages: Grades 5 and up (The book features realistic characters and mature themes that will also appeal to older readers, including adults)
As Zebra Forest opens, eleven-year-old Annie Snow has just completed an essay on her three wishes for summer: going to the movies, swimming, visiting friends at camp. Only trouble is, she doesn’t care one whit about any of these things; they’re three invented wishes made up to pacify the teacher. Annie’s real wishes (which she shares with no one) are to grow tall, have an adventure, and meet her father. Unfortunately, none of these genuine wishes seems destined to come true—especially the third, since she and her nine-year-old brother Rew have grown up believing that their father is dead. But is he? Ready or not, we’re about to find out.
Out of nowhere, a menacing stranger claiming to be Andrew Snow appears at the family’s door, throwing their everyday life into turmoil. This disheveled man, so different from the heroic, swashbuckling figure the children had fantasized about for years (when they believed their real father dead), is not only very much alive but has just escaped from the nearby prison. Rew, angry and resentful, refuses to believe that this scruffy, ill-mannered character could possibly be his father, and wants him out of their house and their lives. But Annie isn’t so sure, and wants to learn everything she can about Andrew Snow’s past—and hers. Gran, presumably, could explain what’s going on here. But she retreats into her own private world, leaving the children to cope with a highly dangerous and adult situation as best they can.
Advancing with freight train force, Gewirtz’s deftly constructed story uncovers family secrets one by one, showing the wounds inflicted both by truth—and by concealment, however well-intended. The characters are real and stark, the plot compelling and believable. Zebra Forest reads (and feels) much like a stage play. It has the same intensity, occurring within a confined space from which there is no escape—for the characters or for us. Wisely, Gewirtz refuses to retreat behind easy answers, giving us a memorable and compelling book about a dysfunctional family desperately struggling to get a toehold on normalcy.
In the Classroom
1. Reading. Zebra Forest is an excellent candidate for reading aloud or for discussion in a small book group. It’s a fast read, so you can preview it within a couple of hours. The 200-page book is broken into 39 chapters, so read-alouds with your students can run anywhere from 10 minutes on up. As noted in the Summary, the novel reads like a play, and like any good play (or poem), it packs a lot of meaning into a few words. It’s also a novel that sparks controversy both because of its subject matter and because not all readers are likely to respond the same way to the characters—or their actions. Allow plenty of time for discussion and/or writing as you share the book with students.
2. Background. Zebra Forest deals with some difficult (some would say dark) issues, such as imprisonment, anger, manslaughter, abandonment, marital discord, and family secrets. Occasionally, critics will argue that such topics are not appropriate (or desirable) for young readers, and that books for students in upper elementary or middle school should be lighter in theme or tone. After reading several chapters, you may wish to discuss this openly with your students. Do they agree with these more cautious critics? Or do they feel that it is important for young adult literature to deal openly with such topics? Writing option: Should students of a certain age have the right to choose their own literature, or should they be guided by adults’ choices?
3. Central theme. Does Zebra Forest have a central theme or message? If so, how would you express that theme? Does it have to do with deception, love, or both?
4. Argument writing. One of the books recurring themes of this book has to do with lying: the kinds of lies we tell, and the consequences of lying. You might begin a discussion on this topic by identifying some of the lies that are told in the story—or have been told even before the story begins. Who lies to whom? Which lies are most significant—or most damaging? Are any of them incidental, or even necessary? Consider two examples: Gran lies to Annie and Rew about the fact that their father is still alive—and in prison. Annie lies to her social worker about Gran’s mental and physical health so that she and Rew won’t be sent to a foster home. Are these lies different—or is a lie a lie no matter what? Using examples from the book (and/or from personal experience), have students craft an argument defending or contradicting this statement: Lying is sometimes justified.
5. Structure and setting. Think about where the story takes place. Even though it’s called Zebra Forest, do we spend time in the forest—or mostly see it out the window? Why would this be? If students were to produce this story in another medium, would they see it as a stage play—or a film? Writing option: Talk or write about why a producer might choose one over the other (play versus film). Also, who might students cast in the roles of Rew, Annie, and Andrew Snow? (Note: Zebra Forest has a very defined setting: Gran’s house. The primary characters rarely leave this confined space. Also, the story depends more on dialogue than on action. These are characteristics of stage drama more than of cinema, which tends to depend more heavily on action, expansive sets, and numerous characters.)
6. Voice: Who’s telling the story? In any narrative, the author must decide who will tell the story—and that person’s voice and perspective tend to dominate, so the choice is important. Why did author Adina Rishe Gewirtz choose to tell this particular story in Annie’s voice—versus, say, Rew’s, Gran’s, or Andrew Snow’s? What sort of voice is it? (Consider rereading the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 to recapture first impressions of Annie’s voice.) How might the story have been different if told by Gran, Rew, or Andrew Snow? Writing option: Have students choose one major event from the story (e.g., when Andrew Snow first appears or when Rew discovers Annie did not mail the letter requesting help) and write it in another character’s voice. What do students learn about plot and character development from this writing?
7. Voice: Overall tone. This book has been described by various critics and readers as a mystery or thriller. Would your students agree? Brainstorm some words that describe (as your students hear it) the overall tone of the book (moody, threatening, comical, mysterious, uplifting, etc.). Can you identify one or more passages to illustrate your description? Question: As readers, how does the author want us to feel when reading this book? Terrified? Curious? Hopeful? Entertained? Anxious? Or—something else? Explain your feelings.
8. Character. The Common Core Standards for narrative writing indicate that characters often change throughout a narrative, and it is this change that helps us define who they are. Talk about the primary characters within this narrative: Rew, Annie, Gran, and Andrew Snow. Do any of them change? Do all of them? Which of the four changes the most, and why? Writing option: Ask students to write a short character sketch based on any one of the four characters. They should define who the person is when we first encounter him or her (using quotations or specific references to support their characterization), then describe who that person becomes by the end of the book (again, using specific references as evidence).
9. Organizational structure. The CCSS remind us that good narrative structure calls for a turning point: a moment when the action takes a new course or one of the characters experiences a serious revelation or change of heart. Can you identify such a moment (or more than one) in Zebra Forest? What is the impact of a turning point on the reader? Why are turning points so important to narrative writing? What is the parallel to a turning point in informational writing or argument?
10. Organizational structure. Zebra Forest is a relatively short novel, yet it is divided into 39 chapters. That is quite a few. What triggers an author’s decision to begin a new chapter? Is it similar to beginning a new paragraph? See if you can identify one instance in which the ending of one chapter suggests it is time to begin something fresh. Quote from the book to support your choice. Question: How would this book—or any other—be a different experience for the reader OR the writer if it were written as one large piece instead of being broken into chapters?
11. Argument: some philosophical questions. Following are a few questions that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any—or have students pose a question of their own—to answer orally, through a podcast, or in writing:
- It’s apparent that Gran loves Rew and Annie. Yet the life they live with her is anything but traditional. In some ways, they care for her more than she for them. Their school attendance is less than regular. She tells them almost nothing about their parents or their childhood. Is this fair—or might they be better off in another home? Why?
- When the prison break occurs, Andrew Snow has two decisions to make: whether to leave the prison at all, and where to go if he does leave. Does he make good decisions? Why do you think so?
- The social worker Adele Parks knows that the children’s life with Gran is not exactly as Annie describes it—yet she allows it to continue. Is this an act of friendship—or does she just not want to be bothered digging for the truth? If you were in Adele Parks’ place, would you do the same? Think about long-term consequences in justifying your decision.
- Who is the bravest character in this book and why do you think so? Quote from the book to support your opinion. Is courage an essential characteristic for a major character in this or any book?
- Rew, desperate to be rescued, pleads with Annie to mail a letter to the police, but though she promises to do so, she changes her mind. Is it all right for Annie to break her promise to Rew—or should she have mailed that letter? What are the positives and negatives of either choice?
- During much of the story, Annie identifies with political hostages. Is she a hostage? Why or why not?
12. Comparison: pirates, spies, and heroes. Have any of your students read the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson? If so, you may wish to discuss Rew and Annie’s obsession with this book. Why do they love it so much? What does it represent for them? As part of this discussion, reread the fantasy life the children concoct for their father before they know he is actually alive (pp. 21-26). Can we draw any comparisons between the main character in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, and this fantasy version of Andrew Snow? How does the real Andrew Snow compare to the invented hero Rew and Annie imagine early on?
13. The beginning: An effective introduction? The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on beginnings that set up a story or discussion. Some critics have said that Zebra Forest begins slowly, so that it takes us a while to get into the story. Do your students agree—or does that first chapter serve an important function? Read Chapter 1 aloud again with this question in mind: Is this chapter vital—or could we skip right over it and begin with Chapter 2? Have students respond to this question, through discussion or writing, quoting from the book to support their position.
14. Presentation. Take a good look at the cover for the book. What do you see? What associations do you make? What does the cover design suggest about the book even before we begin reading?
15. The ending: A good resolution to the story? The Common Core Standards suggest that a good ending should flow naturally from events within the story. Read Chapter 39 again, asking just how effective it is. Does this chapter tie up the loose ends of the story effectively? Flow from the earlier elements of the story? Hold any surprises for readers? Would your students change anything if they could? Predictions: Andrew Snow, we’re told, will likely be out of prison within five years or so. What is likely to happen at that point? Will he come back to Gran’s house? Why? If he does, will Rew, Annie, and Gran want to see him? What makes you think so? Write about this.
16. Personal connection/expository essay. At the beginning of the book, Annie mentions three wishes that are important to her: growing taller, having an adventure (she most certainly manages that), and meeting her father (a wish she does not know is about to come true). If you could make three serious wishes right now, what would they be? Write an expository essay outlining your wishes and what makes them important to you.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Jeff will be reviewing a favorite book—and it’s a surprise. Please don’t forget, if you’re thinking about professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.