On her 12th birthday, just after her “dream birthday party” at a local bakery, Zoe Washington gets an unexpected letter from the father she’s never met. Marcus Johnson has long been in prison for the murder of a young woman who had been a friend of his. Zoe knows her mother and stepfather wouldn’t approve, but she secretly begins writing back in From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Janae Marks’ engaging debut.
Zoe’s instincts prove right, because it turns out that Marcus has been writing to Zoe for years, and her mother has been intercepting his communications. Immediately intrigued, Zoe is surprised at how kind, smart and concerned her father seems; he calls her “Little Tomato” after a jazz song and sends her a playlist of his favorite songs. Eventually, Zoe inquires about his crime, and Marcus declares his innocence, claiming that his public defender never bothered to track down an alibi that would have exonerated him.
Zoe finds a helpful ally in her maternal grandmother, who remembers Marcus and thinks “he is a good person at heart.” Grandma believes that Marcus and Zoe have a right to communicate, so she offers to serve as an adult intermediary. Their allegiance is warm and believable; it’s particularly touching when Grandma facilitates Zoe’s first phone conversation with her father.
Unbeknownst to her grandmother, Zoe is determined to track down Marcus’ alibi, and the uncertainty of her quest—along with Marks’ crisp writing and Zoe’s likable first-person narration—makes for page-turning reading. The resolution of Zoe’s investigation comes a bit too easily, but her gradual awakening to the problem of racial injustice for black people like Marcus serves as an excellent introduction for young readers to the pervasive issue.
Marks also includes parallel narratives that help round out the plot, such as Zoe’s desire to enter a “Kids Bake Challenge!” on the Food Network and a misunderstanding between Zoe and her next-door neighbor, Trevor, who aids Zoe in her sleuthing. Zoe and Trevor’s friendship troubles offer valuable insights into how easily relationships can be unintentionally damaged.
Never heavy-handed, Marks’ prose is as sweet as one of Zoe’s confections. And as the icing on the cake, From the Desk of Zoe Washington imparts important lessons about judging other people, whether by the color of their skin or by their presumed guilt or innocence.