I am participating in a group of Twitter friends that are reading, sharing and responding to recent middle grade novels. Hopefully, we will be able to find books that will excite the young readers in our classrooms and help us to teach important literacy skills and concepts in the coming year. Our group's handle is #BookRelays if you would like to see what we're reading and how we respond to these books.
I was very excited to dig into my first ARC as a part of this group. Nancy Paulsen was very kind to provide us with Zoe in Wonderland by Brenda Woods. The beautiful cover art drew me in right away, with its rendering of a young girl laying back and relaxing with a book in the middle of a bright green forest. I knew this would be a terrific book to kick off my "Summer of Reading"!
I really appreciate that this is a story that many of my 4th and 5th grade students will be able to relate to and be able to recognize themselves in. Eleven-year-old Zoe G. Reindeer feels like she's no one interesting or special. Her older sister, Jade is beautiful and has lots of friends. Her younger brother, Harper, is a genius and a "snox" (a combination of sneaky fox). At school, she has only one friend, Quincy.
Her father is the owner of Doc Reindeer's Exotic Plant Wonderland, a combination nursery and greenhouse with a pond and many interesting plants and animals. The family lives on the property of her father's business. She spends much of her time daydreaming of all of the wonderful adventures she'll have one day, when she's older.
When an astronomer from the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory comes to the Plant Wonderland looking for a baobab tree, he strikes up a friendship with Zoe that inspires her to try to grow her own baobab trees from seeds and stretch her imagination further than ever before. He visits several times, bringing her gifts of books to encourage scientific wonder and exploration.
Character development is a strength of this novel. The author uses the theme of seeds to illustrate that a tough exterior has to be softened and broken down before growth can occur. As Zoe and her friends and family suffer various setbacks, it is their close-knit relationships, resiliency, and creativity that allow them to recover and grow stronger. Zoe has to learn how to trust her parents, her brother and sister, and her friends, and most of all herself, that everything will turn out all right.
I also like that this novel handles the subjects of sibling rivalry, bullying, and adolescent stress in a realistic way, while still being appropriate for an elementary classroom. There is no obscene language or subject matter that would make me uncomfortable sharing this with students.
I think this book could lead to some great discussions in my classroom. Zoe spends a lot of time complaining that things that happen aren't her fault. This story would be a good opportunity to look at cause and effect and causal chains. Because when you get to the end of the book, the reader can see how one thing led to another all the way through. I love it when books do that. And I'll be interested to see how students would make these connections.
Hardcover, 208 pages
Expected publication: August 16th 2016 by Nancy Paulsen Books