Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tween Tuesday Book Review: Zora and Me, by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon (Candlewick, 2010)

Tween Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Green Bean Teen Queen that highlights great reads for tweens.

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Zora and Me by debut novelists Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon is one of the most anticipated children's releases this fall, and has already received a starred review in Kirkus and was selected for both the Kids Indie Next List and the Fall Okra List from the Southern Indie Booksellers.

The novel is inspired by the childhood of noted novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, perhaps best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.   I must admit that I have never read any of Zora Neale Hurston's novels, and had no preconceived notions about her life and work before reading Zora and Me, but considering that the novel is aimed at middle grade readers, we must assume that they would have little familiarity with Zora Neale Hurston's works either, except perhaps with some of the folktales that she collected, which have been published as children's books.

The authors use Carrie, a fictional best friend of Zora, to narrate the story, which is set in Eatonville, the all-black community in Florida where Zora Neale Hurston grew up, in the year 1900. Zora, even in fourth grade, is famous for her storytelling, or her lying, depending on how you look at it. Or maybe she's just "crazy as a hoot owl," as she is described by one town resident.  But when she starts to tell wild stories of their reclusive neighbor Mr. Pendir being half alligator, half man, her classmate Stella has had enough.
"You are too lying," Stella snapped.  "You the lyingest girl in town!  You are so lying, even when you tell the truth, it comes out a lie!"
But no one cares, since "we all knew that nobody could tell a story better than Zora."  In fact the authors give us many clues that Zora is no ordinary child.  Carrie tells us that Zora "had a way of giving personality to everything in Eatonville.  Flowers alongside the road weren't just flowers.  One day they were royal guards saluting us on our walks home...that's how Zora saw things.  Everything in the world had a soul, and a soul to her meant being more than anyone counted on."  And she burns with curiosity, "shooting questions...like she was a popgun." 

The authors at first seem to paint an almost idyllic picture of life in the Jim Crow South, with scenic ponds for swimming, old ladies who have "conjure power," plenty of time to wander in the woods finding baby pigs with their friend Teddy, and free licorice sticks from Joe Clarke's general store.  But when Old Lady Bronson falls off a ledge at the Blue Sink fishing hole, Zora is convinced that Mr. Pendir--transformed into an alligator--is somehow to blame.  The mystery deepens when a decapitated body is found by the railroad tracks that the children recognize as that of a stranger, Ivory, they had met in the woods.  Zora believes that she knows who--or what--killed him--the gator-man hybrid she has conjured up in her imagination.  But the real solution to the mystery is much more ordinary, as well as more frightening, than the children think--and it's wrapped up in the intricacies of race relations, where the color of a person's skin could make "one woman worth protecting, while it made another man fit to die." 

Racism is ever present--and not only among the whites.  When Zora brings up the topic of the murder at the family dinner table, her father flies into a rage.  "Do you--do you think you white?...wanting to talk about death--right here at the dinner table!  That is the kind of thing white folks do!" And when they go shopping in nearby Lake Maitland, Zora's mother pretends she's running errands for white people instead of shopping for herself.  Carrie complains:  "It picked at my spirit that the surest way for Negroes to get along was to pretend we were only ever running errands for white folks.  Didn't people like Mrs. Walcott think anything belonged to us?"  The only white person Carrie and Zora seem to have a positive relationship with is old Mr. Ambrose, a kindly old white man who helped at Zora's birth and affectionately calls her "Snidlets."

This book is all about the power of storytelling, or "explaining our lives through a story," whether it's the Southern folklore about gator kings that Zora finds or the stories she invents herself to explain her world.  Oddly enough, as I was reading this novel, I kept thinking about Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, another child of great imagination who believed in the power of stories.  Zora and Me also speaks to the power of love, and belonging to a family and community.  As our narrator Carrie asks, isn't "sticking by the people you love...the easiest choice of all?"

The authors successfully capture the voice of the different characters, creating a real feel for language of the region and the time period.  With the colorful language and manageable length (the narrative runs 170 pages), the story almost begs to be read aloud, although its complex racial themes would make it a challenging read-aloud for most school classrooms.  Nonetheless, it would be an excellent book to read aloud at home, and could spark some excellent discussions on the various themes dealt with in the story.

Read a chapter from Zora and Me here.

A discussion guide from the publisher is available on-line.

The novel includes an annotated bibliography of the works of Zora Neale Hurston, a short biography of the writer, and a timeline of her life.  It is the first work not written by Hurston herself to be endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust.  A detailed website for the book offers a wealth of supporting material, including background on Eatonville, age-appropriate activities related to the book, and additional background on Zora Neale Hurston.  

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