Review: Zoe in Wonderland is a down-to-earth story that grounds itself in reality.
Since this is a plant and book blog, I gave myself a tremendous pat on the back when I discovered Brenda Woods’ Zoe in Wonderland, a middle grade chapter book about a plant lover! While the title suggests a Lewis Carroll fantasy of sorts, the book finds roots in everyday joys and challenges. Which makes it even more intriguing than a fantasy.
12-year-old Zoe Reindeer is an introspective and imaginative girl who lives with her family — and plants. Her father, Doc Reindeer, is a horticulturalist who owns a beautiful nursery called Wonderland. But hard times hit Zoe and her family — her best friend is moving far away and her dad struggles with keeping their finances afloat. One day, a mysterious astronomer stops by. He tells Zoe about the elusive baobab tree, which becomes a symbol of hope and resilience throughout the story.
If there’s a word to describe Zoe in Wonderland, it’s earthy. It’s down-to-earth and warm and realistic. It doesn’t shy away from mundane matters that can overwhelm people, whether it’s bullies, finances, health problems, or divorce. The book isn’t overwhelmed by a convoluted plot. We follow Zoe as she learns more about the baobab tree. This gives the book room to be character-driven, allowing Zoe’s family and friends to have distinct quirks and traits. Ben’s a book-doling astronomer, Quincy’s an avid film buff, and Jade’s a popular girl with layers.
Woods also gets playful with language, making the book a rich read that feels animated and colloquial. Zoe’s surname is Reindeer, an open invitation for gentle Christmas jokes. She and Quincy talk about divorce as splitsville. Her brother Harper is the snox, i.e. a sneaky fox. Nary a dull moment passes by when you’re reading Zoe’s punchy conversations.
As a plant head, I also really loved how gardening becomes this practice of patience and hope throughout the novel. A moment towards the end (and hopefully this won’t spoil the book too much) is reminiscent of this quote from Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere: “The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow.”
Zoe in Wonderland is a story that even grown-ups can resonate with. It revels in reality, unveiling the possibility of concretely building the world around you with what’s inside your head and heart.
Get Zoe in Wonderland at Bookshop.org.