Sometimes you pick up a book and you’re not sure you’ll connect with it. Then you start reading and it’s like magic. You’re drawn into a world completely different from your own, and yet you feel like you’re a part of it. That’s how I felt about ZORA AND ME by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon. I picked it up as a door prize at the Missouri SCBWI conference, mainly because the cover said it was an Edgar Award Nominee for Best Juvenile Mystery. I’m so glad I did. And because I had the good fortune to win this book as part of a giveaway, I’m going to pass it on to another lucky reader. I’ll give the details at the bottom.
When a young man’s body is found by the railroad tracks, the mysterious murder threatens the peace of a small Florida town. Zora believes she knows who killed Ivory. Whether Zora is telling the truth or stretching it, her tale is mesmerizing because it is so chillingly believable: a shape-shifting gator-man prowls the marshes, aching to satisfy his hunger for beautiful voices. And when Ivory sang, his voice was as warm as honey and twice as sweet. Zora and her best friends, Carrie and Teddy, set out to prove their theory, but in their search for the truth, they stumble into an ugly web of envy and lies, deceit and betrayal. Set in the hometown of American author Zora Neale Hurston, this coming-of-age story is the only project ever to be endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust that was not written by Hurston herself.
1. The mystery – I’ll just start with that since the book was nominated for a mystery award. I’m not sure how to explain it, but there was something more about the mystery in this book. I think it’s because there’s this possibly supernatural element. It’s built entirely on Zora’s word, and as the description says, you don’t know if Zora is telling truth or not because Carrie, the narrator, sets up Zora’s storytelling tendencies so well. It’s so well done the way all the pieces fit together in the end.
2. The history – Although I’ve heard of THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, I haven’t read it or anything else by Zora Neale Hurston. I also can’t say I’ve read much told from the point of view of an African-American child during this time period. The book gives a clear picture of the racial tensions that existed at the beginning of the 20th century without coming across as a history lesson. We see it all through the eyes of a girl who lives in an all-black township and so is fairly sheltered, and yet she’s still exposed to the ugliness that happens outside her everyday world. It’s a key part of leaving her childhood behind, which brings me to my next point …
3. The coming-of-age – In many ways this book seems more adult than other middle grade novels, probably because it’s told as a memory. The characters are 10 years old, and yet the narrator is looking back on an incident from her childhood. At the same time, though, the sense that Carrie passes this inevitable line between the magic of childhood and the reality of life is so clear. I reread this passage several times:
“Zora had made me a story out of events that were too huge and too frightening for me to hold. She had put them neatly into places that let me step back and see them, name them, understand them, and do something about them.
Now she was taking that away from me, not because she was selfish or mean, but because she had a relentless curiosity. Zora’s only real crime was wanting to know what we shouldn’t have known, and then not knowing until it was too late that we shouldn’t have known it.”
4. The love story – Carrie has this sense of what love means. She observes it in her friends’ parents and remembers how her own parents were before her father disappeared. She also has a vision of how she will love one day.
“Even though I’d seen him in school that day and the day before, something about Teddy nicked my heart with longing. We were almost all alone together except for Zora. It occurred to me that, for a very long time, I had wanted just that: to be all alone with Teddy.
I didn’t want to kiss him or anything lovey-dovey. I just wanted to watch how he looked at the sky and put his hands in his pockets when he wasn’t trying to impress anybody, when he was just being himself.”
What a sweet picture–and exactly how I expect to see “love” portrayed in a middle grade novel. Very well done.
5. The descriptions – I love the way Carrie views the world. This story takes place a hundred years ago, but it continues to be relevant. Here’s how she describes what today would be the popular girls.
“All four of those girls (Brazzles, as we called them among ourselves) were daughters of professional men–a doctor, a dentist, a tailor, and an undertaker. This meant more to them than it did to us; to hear them talk, you would have thought they were the duchesses and countesses and princesses of Eatonville. They carried themselves like every day was Easter. Nearly all the other girls would have liked to be them, and the older boys were always buzzing around them. And the more it happened, the more the Brazzles were the focus of every eye, the more they believed that they should be the focus of every eye.”
Has anyone else read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment here by noon on Monday, Nov. 26. U.S. or Canada only for this one. I’ll announce the winner then.
In other news, I’m going to take a few weeks off from MMGM. I’m working on a major revision and have to sacrifice my reading to get it done. I’ll be back with more reviews soon!
For querying writers, Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon are represented by Victoria Sanders of Victoria Sanders & Associates.