Review of the Day: Zia Erases the World by Bree Barton
We had less words when I was a kid. It’s true! When I was growing up the same concepts and ideas as today were all around, but so many of their terms were unknown to the general populace. I had a friend with OCD but we didn’t have a name for it. I had a friend who was certainly non-binary, but the idea of personal pronouns had entered few children’s lexicons. We had kids who were neurodivergent or suffered from anxiety and yet the terms we used for these conditions were so clunky and broad. I don’t know that we quite understood how important it would be to name things for what they were. Names have power. If you can name something, you can tackle it. And for so long our children have wrestled with the nameless. They’ve been on their own, maybe making up their own names when they couldn’t shove themselves into the already existing lexicon. I say all this, but it’s not like the kids born today are gifted every word out there instantly upon birth. They still need to find the words and the names that fit who they are inside. This is a concept that would be difficult to put into a novel for children in the first place, so what do you do? Perhaps you turn it into a fantastical narrative. A metaphor of sorts, that manages to balance the magical with the deadly serious. In Zia Erases the World author Bree Barton takes on that challenge. Her concept is small, even silly, when you hear it. But the implications? You may find yourself grasping for words to describe them.
How do you tackle something you can’t even name? For at least a year now, Zia has been dealing with something that she calls the Shadoom. It’s not something she likes to think about. Fortunately, there’s plenty to distract her. She and her mom are currently moving her very Greek grandmother (her yiayia), into their tiny home, she’s avoiding her old friends at school, and she’s met a new girl who’s not only nice and cool but funny too. Still, on the outer edges of everything, Zia knows that the Shadoom is just waiting to pounce. Words are Zia’s thing, so she buries herself in them a lot. Maybe that’s why she’s so drawn to a mysterious old book in her yiayia’s attic called the C. Scuro Dictionary, 13th Edition. Turns out, when Zia uses the eraser tucked inside on the book, she can literally erase any word, and its reality, out of existence. If you could get rid of any word, what would you erase? And what would you do if the one thing you’re trying to get rid of didn’t seem to have a name?
I read a lot of contemporary middle grade graphic novels to my daughter. She’s just about the perfect age for Zia too, and sometimes I wonder how her reading experience would compare to my own at her age. For example, if I read her a book and a character is counting and tapping things a lot, she’ll look at me and say without hesitation, “OCD”. If someone is missing the signs that a friend or family member may be suffering from depression, she’ll call that out instantly. Would she be able to identify that the Shadoom in “Zia” is really anxiety and depression? Would other kids? Maybe some, but there is a distinct possibility that there are kids out there who have never even heard of these concepts before. Looking at the cover of this book, it resembles nothing so much as a light-hearted fantasy novel. So perhaps some fantasy enthusiast will pick it up, read it, and come to realize that this book is naming their own Shadoom as well. When you’re an author writing about serious subjects, you can’t rule out the possibility that some kid is going to see themselves in your book. I once heard someone, I think it was the author Ann M. Martin, say that because some kids write to her about their very serious issues in their lives and at home, she would hire a therapist to help her craft the correct responses to some of the cries for help they’d send to her. That may yet happen to Ms. Barton. After all, books can be mirrors, even when the person who picks them up is expecting a window.
I worry that when I talk in this review about something like Barton’s take on naming your pain, I’m making the book sound a lot more serious and dour than it actually is. The fact of the matter is that this light-hearted book jacket isn’t really all that misleading. Written in the first person, so much of the story hinges on Zia’s voice. And many is the middle grade novel I’ve put down (and kids as well, I guarantee you) when the main character’s voice doesn’t work. With Zia, I was particularly wary. After all, this is a kid that smashes together words on a regular basis to make her own original combinations. That’s the kind of thing that could go real twee, real quick. Instead, Barton pulls it off. Zia’s new words aren’t cute but they have their own inherent charm. You like Zia. Even when she’s doing things that are clearly wrongheaded, you might be mentally screaming at her but you’re still rooting for her all the way. Flawed heroines are tricky creatures to conjure to life, but this book pulls it off. You’d want Zia to be your friend. You’d just also have to acknowledge that that kind of friendship isn’t, what you’d call, easy.
Big concepts necessitate a smaller focus. If you’re not writing an epic fantasy novel of 500+ some pages, then you have to keep things simple. This is both a good and a bad thing. Good for the writer, since they don’t really have to broaden their focus much outside of their protagonists’ firsthand experiences. Bad, because anytime you attempt to take their concept to the logical next step the whole idea falls apart. Zia suffers from this conundrum a little. In this book a girl is capable of erasing the very concept behind a word out of existence. In doing so, she gets rid of some pretty huge ones, like “pain”. Now if, in fact, all pain were to cease in the world at once, the effects would be immediate, worldwide, and even if humanity itself couldn’t remember ever having felt pain, there’s be a general societal collapse in some way, yes? In this book, though, all the effects are local and, quite frankly, relatively small. Barton protects the reader from the darker implications, but that focus I talked about? It just zeroes in on Zia, her experiences, her friends and family, and that is it. At no point in this book does she ever see a news article related to her actions. And you understand completely how and why Barton made this choice. Just be aware that when you hand this book to a literal-minded reader, they’re gonna come back to you with some questions.
I’ll be frank with you when I say that I have no idea how one would go about writing a book like Zia. To get a book like this right, it has to read like a piece of well-oiled machinery. It needs to be able to balance out what seems like a fluffy magical concept alongside generational trauma and contemporary takes on personal mental health issues. When I sit back and think about the kids it could help, it sort of blows my tiny mind. It falls into that category of fantasy that cuddles right up to realistic fiction. Do we have a word for that kind of a book? I betcha Zia would. I betcha she’d also adore this book, if she happened to find it crammed in a corner of her grandmother’s attic. Fun and heart wrenching by turns, this book never flounders when trying to find the right words. We should all be so lucky.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: My discussion with Ms. Barton about the book can be found here.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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