Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips

Four teens in a Vancouver high school. Miguel is a refugee, survivor of a massacre in Central America. Kyle's passions are music and motorcycles. Tricia is struggling to feel included in her family, where her Japanese half doesn't match her new stepfather - nor her mother nor baby half-sister. Natalie's background of abuse has twisted her in an evil way; she likes to toy with people's lives. Their English teacher, Mrs. Farr, and the school counsellor, Ms. Nishi, watch over them all - but not successfully.

Poems from shifting viewpoints tell this tragic tale. On the first day that Natalie is transferred into the school, she can tell her machinations will be "like shooting fish in a barrel." The plot is gripping. It's like watching a train wreck.

I liked that the teacher was neither good nor bad, just a flawed human making mistakes like the rest of us. She brings a note of humour to the story when she criticizes Kyle's motorcycle dream poem: "you need to be careful of innuendo. You might tone down the more overt sexual references in order to make it suitable for the poetry display board." Kyle's response is a puzzled "sexual references ?"

Verse novels are my special love, which allows me to overlook flaws... but not entirely. I wish the individual teen voices were not so similar to each other - this is always a danger with multiple points of view - although it is easy to tell who is who because of the name at the top (or bottom, if it's an assignment poem) and the font changes. The fish imagery gets a little heavy-handed (and fishtailing a stretch); my taste is for more subtlety. All in all, it's a good book and I think teens who like dark and gritty realism will enjoy it. I wouldn't have picked it as the winner of the Canadian GG Children's Literature award, but I'm glad to see the verse novel format getting recognition.

Readalikes: Any of Ellen Hopkins' verse novels are a natural match, even though they are much longer - Impulse is about a trio of troubled teens; Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James (for the poisonous friendship); and Split Image by Mel Glenn (for a verse novel tragedy in multiple voices exploring the differences between public and private personas).

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