Zora and Me

by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
ages: 11+
First sentence: “It’s funny how you can be in a story but not realize until the end you were in one.”
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Review copy sent to me by the publisher

It’s an interesting idea: take a famous, respected novelist — in this case, Zora Neale Hurston — who had a unique childhood — in this case, living in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida in the early 1900s — and turn it into a middle grade mystery. The “me” part of the title, is one of Zora’s fictional friends, Carrie (the other being Tom) and we see Zora and the adventures through her eyes.

It all begins one night when Carrie and Zora see a giant alligator maul a local man. The alligator disappears, and Zora — who was always one to spin a story — decides that another man, this one a bit of a recluse — is actually the Gator King, half-man, half-alligator, and can morph between the two. It’s a bit far-fetched, but in pursuit of the story, they inadvertently stumble upon something deeper and darker in their town.

It’s a story about the power of stories, and belief in stories. But it’s also a story of race, and acceptance, and — to a much lesser extent — justice. As far as historical fiction goes, the book captures you and sweeps you away to a town where, on the surface, it doesn’t matter what color you are. But as the layers are peeled away, it’s much less rosy. My only real quibble comes with the use of the n-word: on the one hand, that it’s in the book at all speaks towards historical accuracy. It is the early 1900s, after all. But, the first time it was used, I did a double-take and chalked it up to historical fiction. The fourth and fifth times, however, I went searching for an authors note explaining the use. There was none. This really bothered me: I feel that that word, especially, should not be used lightly, or in passing, without some sort of explanation or disclaimer. I found it disturbing, and it took away from the enjoyment I had reading the book.

The mystery was interesting, the use of Zora Neale Hurston as a character was clever. The racial issues, however, overran the book, and while there was resolution at the end, there was a bitter taste left over. Perhaps this is what the authors intended when writing, or perhaps I’m overreacting. Either way, I was left torn: I liked the book, but I didn’t feel I could recommend it.

It’s amazing what one little word can do.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

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