It’s the summer before the 7th grade, and Zoe has just celebrated her 12th birthday at Ari’s Cakes with her best friends Jasmine and Maya. Trevor, her other best friend and neighbor, wasn’t there; Zoe is still mad at him for what he said. When Zoe returns home, she finds a letter from the Massachusetts State Penitentiary in the mailbox. Could it be? A letter from her birth father, Marcus? Zoe runs upstairs to read it in her room. Marcus seems like a pretty normal guy. He likes music and calls her his “Little Tomato”, which she does not understand. He does not seem like a murderer. Zoe does not know much about the crime that Marcus was convicted of just before she was born, but she does know that her mother does not want her anywhere near him.
Meanwhile, Trevor and his mom stop over to bring Zoe her birthday gift, which is the cookbook from Ruby Willow, the winner of Zoe’s favorite baking competition for kids on the Food Network. Zoe is too preoccupied with the letter and too mad at Trevor to think about the gift, so she gets to work writing back to Marcus and convincing her parents to let her audition for Kids Bake Challenge. Zoe’s parents agree to consider letting her audition, but she has to spend her Mondays interning at Ari’s Cakes and learning the ropes of running a bakery; a task that Zoe is more than happy to take on!
When Zoe receives Marcus’ next letter, it becomes clear that he has been writing to her for years, but she has never received any letters until now. Could he have gotten the address wrong? Or… could her mother have been hiding the letters from her? Zoe isn’t sure, but she does know one thing: she has to keep these letters a secret. Zoe’s grandma agrees to help her, and lets Marcus send the letters to her address. She has always believed in Marcus’ innocence and that he was wrongly convicted.
Zoe’s grandma tells her that Marcus had an alibi who was never located and that Marcus’ lawyer really didn’t believe in his innocence because he was a young Black man. Zoe does some investigating at the library and finds a book called Wrongfully Convicted. She reads many stories about people, mostly Black men, who had been found guilty of crimes they did not commit. Some even had alibis and were still committed. Zoe learns about an organization called the Innocence Project, which helps wrongfully convicted people get out of prison. Could this be something that is possible for Marcus? With her internship and the baking competition at the back of her mind now, Zoe cannot stop thinking about Marcus: was he really innocent? Could he actually be free if she can find his alibi and prove his innocence? As she is thinking about what to do next, she and Trevor finally talk about why Zoe is mad at him: she heard him saying some mean things about her to his basketball buddies and Zoe’s feelings were very hurt. Trevor apologizes and feels awful, and the two make up and vow to get to the bottom of Marcus’ conviction.
Grandma decides to help Zoe too, and tells her all about where Marcus was at the time the murder occured. He had gone to a tag sale to buy some furniture at someone’s house. The woman who owned the furniture was never located, and she could’ve helped tremendously! Zoe mentions this in her next letter to Marcus and decides she must find out this woman’s name and track her down. Marcus and Zoe plan a phone call at Grandma’s house, and they hear each other’s voices for the very first time. After a lot of convincing, Marcus tells Zoe the name of his alibi: Susan Thomas. He tells Zoe not to get involved. He wants her to live a wonderful life and not worry about grown up stuff, but Zoe wants her father in her life, and will stop at nothing to prove he is innocent.
After a lot of digging, secrets, and lying to her parents, Zoe and Trevor find a woman named Susan Thomas who fits the description that they had of her. She is a professor at Harvard University. After Zoe gets no response from email or from a voicemail she left, she and Trevor devise a plan to go to Harvard and find Susan Thomas themselves. After telling their parents that they are going to a movie in Davis Square and getting a ride from Trevor’s mom, the two kids end up at Harvard University and in Susan Thomas’ office, face to face. Zoe is crushed when she realizes that Susan has no recollection of her father; she has sold a lot of furniture and it has been a long time. Trevor gives Professor Thomas Zoe’s email, just in case she remembers anything else. The kids are forced to take a cab back to where they are meeting Trevor’s mom, and they are in big trouble when they are caught in their lies.
Just when everything seems to be going wrong, Zoe receives an email from Susan Thomas. A letter from Marcus had fallen out of Zoe’s pocket in Susan’s office. She read a little of it to see what it was and noticed the words, “Little Tomato”, which sparked a memory of meeting Marcus. She remembered him! Zoe has to talk to Susan, but she is grounded with no phone, no email, and no way of reaching out again. She feels hopeless as she tells her parents about Susan’s email, begging them to let her reach out. Zoe has given up all hope. She isn't allowed to talk to Susan or audition for the baking competition. She came so far to help Marcus and it was all for nothing. Time passes and the school year begins again. One day, Zoe’s mom and step-dad come into her room. Grandma had convinced them that reaching out to Susan Thomas was the right thing to do, so they did. They hire a lawyer and begin the process of proving Marcus’ innocence. Soon after, Zoe is able to visit him in prison, and the two see each other for the first time ever.
A few years go by, and Marcus is a free man. The family celebrates Marcus’ birthday and everyone is together. The Innocence Project and lawyers got Marcus a new trial, and they made a strong case proving his innocence. Marcus has two jobs in order to save money, one of which is at Ari’s Cakes. He is living with Grandma until he can afford his own apartment, and is surrounded by people who love him. Zoe never got to audition for Kids Bake Challenge, but she doesn't care. She got something so much more; she helped Marcus prove his innocence and helped him be free. She got her father back.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a story about never giving up on what you believe in and fighting for what you think is right. It is also a story about the injustice that is all around us, even after so many years of fighting for equality. Zoe’s story is one of courage, love, and perseverance.