Book Review: Bluefish

Bluefish by Pat Schmatz.  2011.  (ARC copy)

Bluefish starts on Travis’ first day of school in a new town. He misses his old house and especially his dog Roscoe, who ran away before they moved and was never found. All Travis wants to do is find his dog and disappear into his old woods in the country. Instead he’s stuck in a cramped house with his recovering alcoholic grandfather and no dog to escape with.

Life gets a little better when Travis makes new friends. There’s Bradley, who is a genius, but can’t escape the bullies that terrorize him after school. And there’s the energetic and outgoing Vida, whose second-grade nickname, Velveeta, has unfortunately stuck. Velveeta and Bradley befriend Travis whether Travis likes it or not.

But Velveeta’s firework personality hides a deeper grief and a secret she’d rather not talk about.  Travis also has a secret and would be humiliated if it ever got out. He’s illiterate, and is content on fading into the background. Both teens struggle with their secrets until an intuitive teacher, Mr. McQueen, gives them both books that help them face, and eventually deal with, their internal struggles.

Bluefish is chock full of issues and would make great fodder for small group or classroom discussions. Schmatz perfectly captures the feelings, emotions, and intense frustration of being different from other people. Each of the main characters sees themselves as outsiders. Travis believes he’s too stupid and is terrified of people finding out he can’t read because he fears they will make fun of him like the kids at his last school. Vida feels like an outsider because her alcoholic mother ignores her and she’s lost the only person she could count on. Bradley, though rich and smart, is still an outsider and is bullied constantly. Schmatz does a fantastic job of portraying a realistic relationship between these three friends and how they slowly begin to trust each other and open up to share their secrets. Schmatz’s grace with character development will have many readers seeing themselves in the pages and finding the courage to face their own issues.

The issue of illiteracy is handled beautifully. Schmatz handles a heavy issue with a light touch, and captures the frustration and embarrassment of going to special ed classes. When Velveeta asks Travis, What are you? “the old third-grade picture of the bluefish popped into Travis’s mind, standing beneath the swimming onefish, twofish, and redfish. Just hanging around, leaning on an ocean wave, smiling because it was too stupid to know it was stupid.” That’s how Travis sees himself, as the stupid bluefish. Mr. McQueen shows Travis that he’s not stupid for not being able to read. He also shows him that it’s up to Travis himself to stop being illiterate. Through Travis’s own hard work and determination, the literary world opens its door for Travis to explore.

Come back tomorrow to check out my interview with Pat Schmatz!

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