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Review: Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Zebra Forest
By Adina Rishe Gerwirtz
Performed by Kate Reinders

Candlewick on Brilliance Audio

Grades 5-8
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Schuler Books | Your Library

Is anything less exciting than talking about fundamentals? Allow me to wave my rickety can in the air when I say that in just about anything worth doing, a solid grasp of fundamentals is the surest path to success. With well-crafted characters and an engaging plot that doesn’t plod, Zebra Forest nails the basics. It’s a family mystery that slowly unwinds, with doses of suspense and intensity.

It’s 1980 and 11 year old Annie and her younger brother Rew live with their grandmother in the small town of Sunshine. Gran struggles through bouts of mental instability, leaving the kids to largely fend for themselves. One night, an escaped convict emerges from the Zebra – the stand of birch and oak trees behind their house – takes the family hostage and turns their lives upside down.

This is the sort of book where you don’t want to give away too much – the fun is in when and how key elements of the story are revealed. Gerwirtz has a nice handle on pacing. Short chapters chip away at the secrets of Annie and Rew’s family, often ending in moments of emotional weight.

I kept thinking this would make a good play, with clearly-drawn characters driving the story. The dialogue is sharp, with moments of high drama that will have readers hanging on every word.

I listened to the audio version of this book, and the subtle performance by theater actress Kate Reinders suited the story nicely. Reinders doesn’t concoct wildly varied voices for the characters. Small variations do the job.

My only real quibble has to do with the extent to which Treasure Island is incorporated into the story. While it serves as a unifying motif throughout, sometimes the connections seem extraneous. I was much more interested in what was happening to Annie and the rest of the characters – occasional lingering on Treasure Island took me out of the story.

But the key elements are all here. Add to the pot the fact that Zebra Forest is highly book-talkable and you have something that should ensnare a good number of young readers. A skillfully crafted debut novel from an author to watch.

Review copy from the publisher.

Also reviewed by Bookends, Jen Robinson’s Book Page, I Read Banned Books, Great ImaginationsPretty Deadly Reviews.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. I just finished this as well, and had the very same thought about it seeming very much like a play. Since so much of the setting is confined to the house, it felt much like it was set on a stage. The focus on the characters and their relations reminded me in a way of seeing a recent production of Death of a Salesman. Gerwitz controls the pacing so well, but I’m not sure how well this is going to go over with kids.

  2. I think it would make an excellent play, though I hadn’t thought of that. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on it!