Playground Zero

A work of literary and historical fiction

About the Book

International Book Awards

Join the Rayson family for a preview of today’s culture wars―where we’ve been, where we’re going.

1968. It’s the season of siren songs and loosened bonds―as well as war, campaign slogans, and assassination. At the height of the Vietnam War protests, Washington lawyer Tom Rayson uproots his family for the freewheeling anarchy of Berkeley. While Tom pursues a romance with a sexy colleague in the Marin County woods, Marian joins an antiwar party that’s running a Black Panther for president and meets the Berkeley revolution. But for young Alice, her parents’ liberating forays become a blind leap in a city marked by beauty and the berserk―and for a girl, that’s no Summer of Love.

Feeling abandoned by her family, Alice embraces the moment, falling in with Jim and Valerie Dupres. Jim and Valerie learn the ropes on Telegraph Avenue, cadging meals at a nearby communal house and camping out in People’s Park. Soon they’re confronting National Guardsmen. As family and school fade away in a tear-gas fog, Alice feels an ambiguous freedom in the 1960s counterculture. Guided by a child’s eye view in a tumultuous era, Alice could become another casualty, or she could rebel against the rebels and become her own person. But first, she must find her way in a new world where street signs hang backward and there’s a bootleg candy called Orange Sunshine.

2021 International Book Awards Finalist in Fiction: Literary

2021 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards Finalist in Fiction: Social Issues

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What they're saying about

Playground Zero…

Once the cadence of the story beats into the reader’s blood, it is hard to put the book down.

— Tami Richards at Touched by Ink

Like a trip through the Looking Glass, Sarah Relyea’s engrossing debut novel takes you by the hand back to the sixties, where social rules were being challenged and political upheaval was the norm. Relyea tells the absorbing story of twelve-year-old Alice and her family through a series of narrators as they each experience the kaleidoscope streets of Berkeley.

— Patricia Hurtado, Brooklyn writer and journalist with Bloomberg News

This intense retrospective on people yanked out of the strait-laced Fifties and tossed into a culture of anything goes will appeal to readers wanting to learn more about Berkeley’s days of rage.

— G. J. Berger at Historical Novel Society

Sarah Relyea gives readers a remarkable way in to the sixties ethos and culture—and Berkeley was unquestionably the epicenter of this cultural and historical disruption. She captures the chaos, exhilaration, and the lethal elements of that time and place beautifully in human terms. This exquisitely written novel is the anti-cliche—all is real and captivatingly true and surprising.

— Amazon (5-star review)

Playground Zero is an exceptional piece of literary fiction that puts Sarah Relyea in a league of her own. The characters are unique and authentic to the era and geography, each maneuvering through a labyrinth at a time when the United States was propelled into the sphere of real change …The intensity of feeling is a credit to Relyea and her character development.”

— Readers’ Favorite (5-star review)

An eerily compelling déjà vu of the free, wild, and jeopardy-ridden kid scene in late-1960s Berkeley. Uncanny and powerful.

— Charles Degelman, Editor, Harvard Square Editions

A fascinating exploration of a strange and exciting time in US history … I was totally immersed in the story as Alice grows and develops in a world in which freedom has many different outcomes.

— Sarah W., NetGalley

This is a powerful, historical drama. Well constructed.

— Readers’ Favorite (5-star review)


The Details

Published: June 9, 2020
Publisher: She Writes Press
Pages: 416
Formats: EbookPaperback
ISBN-10: 1-63152-889-0
ISBN-13: 978-1-63152-889-7

Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age Fiction