Zoe Washington’s “Good Trouble”

July 23, 2020 § 1 Comment

When John Lewis passed away last weekend—ending a 60-plus-year career of social activism and civil rights legislation—I was struck by how many tributes invoked the Congressman’s tweet from 2015, in which he shared a mugshot from his time in prison 54 years earlier, arrested for using a “white” bathroom in Jackson, Mississippi. The photo was captioned: Even though I was arrested, I smiled bc I was on the right side of history. Find a way to get in the way #goodtrouble

Another of his tweets in 2018 further underscores this notion of “good trouble”—a phrase Lewis became known for:

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

If you’ve asked me for a middle-grade book recommendation in the past two months, you’ve probably heard me go on and on and on about Janae Marks’ debut novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Ages 9-13). If you follow me on Instagram, you may know I chose this title for a summer book club, after my third graders (bless them) begged me to continue hosting Zoom meetings. The book was not only a favorite of the year for most of the kids, nearly every parent emailed me to report that the story was yielding rich, important, anti-racist conversations around the dinner table.

If you are looking for a book to start a conversation about systemic racism, this one’s a gem. It’s not just that it offers awareness about the bias in our criminal justice system—the story features a Black character (Zoe’s father) serving time for a crime he may not have committed—it’s that it offers hope for a more just world. It’s a story about a girl who asks hard questions, who isn’t content to accept things as they are, and who makes some “good trouble” of her own when the adults in her life fail to step up.

Of course, none of these messages would be nearly as effective if the story itself wasn’t fan-freakin-tastic. This is not a heavy-handed “issues” book. It checks every box of a perfect tween story: it’s well-paced; the protagonist is immensely likable; there’s mystery, intrigue, and no shortage of fun and relatable sub-plots (baking! music! friendship drama!). It’s a book nearly impossible to put down, but it’s also a story packed with nuggets ripe for pulling apart and discussing. Read this book to or alongside your tween; you’ll both be better for it. (And may I recommend you encourage your child to make a playlist of the songs Zoe discovers from her father, because isn’t it high time our kids started listening to Stevie Wonder? Also: Fruit Loops cupcakes. Yup, it’s a thing.)

Until she intercepts a letter from him on her twelfth birthday, Zoe Washington has never had communication with her biological father, Marcus, who was convicted of murder shortly before Zoe was born and sentenced to prison. Zoe’s mother has always shot down any questions about Marcus, and Zoe knows she already has a loving father figure in her stepdad. But when Zoe reads Marcus’ letter, which begins “To My Little Tomato,” she is struck by how different he sounds than her picture of a convicted felon. He is warm, genuine, hardworking, and expressive; he calls her his “baby girl” and says he thinks about her every day. As Zoe cautiously forges a pen-pal relationship with Marcus—with the blessing of her maternal grandmother but without the knowledge of her mother or stepdad—she discovers Marcus has been sending her letters for a long time. Even more shocking, he professes to be innocent of the crime for which he serves…and claims he had an alibi to prove it.

Zoe is determined to look into Marcus’ case, even enlisting the help of her best friend, Trevor, to track down Marcus’ supposed alibi, now a professor at Harvard University. Much of their investigatory work is done in secret and against the explicit orders of Marcus and Zoe’s grandmother, both of whom seem resigned to a system against which they feel powerless. But as much as it terrifies Zoe to discover that this man she finds herself trusting is as guilty as the courts initially found him, it terrifies her even more to think about the implications if he isn’t. What does it say about our country—about the American dream—if people can go to prison for a crime they didn’t commit? If Zoe has already been robbed of an in-person relationship with her biological father for twelve years, she can’t afford to wait another thirteen until he gets out.

To date, Zoe’s experience with systemic racism has been limited, but her consciousness of race has not. Dark-skinned like her biological father but living with a light-skinned Black mother and a white stepfather in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Boston, Zoe is astutely aware that her skin color marks her as different; it’s not uncommon for her to illicit frowns from elderly white women when she’s out and about with her stepdad. Zoe’s hyper-awareness of race comes through even in the way she cites the skin color of each person she meets—for example, at the bakery where she begins interning. In our book club, we compared Zoe’s observations of skin color to those of other protagonists we’ve read this year—all white, with the exception of one Mexican-American—and asked ourselves, what it is about the Black experience that makes one more attuned to race in everyday situations?

Zoe notes her mother has occasionally talked to her about the relationship between police brutality and the Black Lives Matter protests, but until her correspondence with Marcus inspires her to research The Innocence Project, where she encounters the statistic that Black people are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder, she has never thought about herself or her family as pawns in a damaged and damaging system. In many ways it’s Zoe’s naiveté which paves the way for her readers—especially white readers—to relate. It’s easy to appropriate some of Zoe’s confusion, outrage, and subsequent passion, especially after we learn that the public defender assigned to Marcus’ case never bothered to track down Marcus’ alibi once a white witness stepped up to testify against him. Or when Zoe’s grandmother explains that a prior, isolated fistfight on a college basketball court—after Marcus was called the “n-word” by a star player—was later used in the murder trial to paint Marcus as a violent Black man.

So, what does “good trouble” look like for Zoe? Without question, Zoe is ambitious—after all, she’s confident she’ll earn a spot on Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge! and later become a Black pastry chef celebrity—but she would never have considered herself rebellious. Until now. In fact, it’s Zoe’s rebellion which most captivated the kids in my book club, and time and again our discussions returned to the age-old question, when do the ends justify the means? Zoe begins by keeping her correspondence with Marcus a secret from her mother, but she’s careful to let her grandmother read each of Marcus’ letters before responding. Soon, though, she’s not only lying to her mother and her grandmother, she’s riding the T and taking taxi cabs across Boston, traipsing through Harvard Yard to divulge personal details to a stranger who may or may not remember selling a sofa to Marcus on the day another man was murdered. “Oh no,” my daughter kept exclaiming aloud while reading to herself. “Oh no, oh no, oh no, I can’t watch!”

Eventually, Zoe’s actions even begin to frighten her, as much for her personal safety as for the emotional ramifications of betraying her family’s trust. Here, author Janae Marks walks a delicate line beautifully, at once eliciting support and empathy for her protagonist while simultaneously holding her accountable as a young girl living under her parents’ roof. For her defiance, Zoe gets grounded and loses her chance to audition for the baking show of her dreams. And yet, without spoiling the immensely satisfying ending, Zoe’s courageous actions do alter the course of history, precisely because they get noticed by the very people in a position to help.

As the kids in my book club kept reminding me, sometimes kids have to make noise when no one is listening. When no one is telling the truth! When no one is helping! Zoe makes some good, necessary trouble, because she knows in her heart that she’s on the right side of history. At least, her family’s history.

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Book published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.

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