Under the Radar: Coteau Books
cj Bott, James Bucky Carter, Ricki Ginsberg, KaaVonia Hinton, Sean Kottke, and Jennifer Walsh
Ricki: Under the Radar is excited to highlight Coteau Books, a registered non-profit production cooperative. Coteau Books is located in Canada, and one of their mandates is to present excellent Canadian writing to the world market while fostering the growth of their writers. They focus on developing and publishing works of young readers’ fiction that both demonstrate literary excellence and portray an understanding of people and the value of community.
In 2011, Coteau Books published Drummer Girl by Karen Bass. As this publishing company has received several awards, the Under the Radar committee decided to review the Canada Council for the Arts’ Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips, published in 2010.
We are very excited to announce that three new reviewers have joined the Under the Radar team. Our column is formatted in a way that highlights all of our voices. Each of our reviewers will highlight one of their favorite aspects of each book.
Summary: Sid is an incredible drummer. When she auditions for an all-male band, Sid encounters conflict. She is told that the band members will only let her join if she is either gay or better-looking. Frustrated, as joining a band is her dream, Sid decides to change her image and asks her cousin to give her a makeover, only to discover the difficulties that females encounter when they dress attractively. Torn between her new and old image, she struggles between the two, different stereotypes forced upon her: being gay or being a slut.
Ricki: Strength through conflict
Sid’s strong voice teaches teens to think for themselves. She battles inner demons as she changes her identity and is forced to navigate the waters of peer pressure and identity. At times, she isn’t sure of herself, but even when she makes mistakes, she learns to follow her heart. “Imposter, said a tiny voice in her head. Shut up, she replied and left to face the day” (Bass 88). Drummer Girl novel teaches readers to have strength in the face of conflict. Her strength is admirable and serves as an excellent model for teens to follow.
KaaVonia: Lighten up!
I enjoyed Drummer Girl, but first I want to mention that I believe Bass’ depiction of characters of color illustrates how difficult it can be to depict characters outside of one’s culture. While I’m sure she did not have any ill-intent, references to Narain, a minor character of East Indian descent, smelling like cumin and having shining white teeth probably wasn’t the best way to attempt a culturally-inclusive cast of characters. My favorite part of the book was the comic relief, a welcome device in a book that asks tough questions about gender roles, inequity, and positioning. I got my first good chuckle when Sid worries about riding with her clumsy sidekick Taylor on his motorcycle, but there are other light moments too, such as when Heather and Aunt Kathy are surprised that Sid is leaving the house without a purse and when Sid asks her dad questions about male/female relationships that make him blush. Bass does a great job of giving readers the opportunity to laugh a bit, even when things are not going Sid’s way.
Bucky: Gendered liminal space
Sid reminded me of Peppermint Patty from a few of the Peanuts holiday specials that aired over the holiday break. In them, perpetual tomboy Peppermint Patty tries to express her love for Charlie Brown while also dabbling in a more stereotypically female set of activities than those for which she is known. She dresses prettily, figure skates, and acts flirty and coquettish, for example, rather than continue as her rough-and-tumble, straightforward, and rather plainly-dressed self. The real Peppermint Patty is somewhere in the middle of these selves, of course, and it turns out that she can skate gracefully under pressure and maintain an athletic competitive persona that, though it might not endear her to Charlie Brown, at least impressed him. Sid is playing with that space between who she thinks she is as a young woman and how others see the typical or ideal young lady. She decides that her comfort zone is somewhere beyond where she began in the text but not quite as far away from it as her peers would like. She faces challenges regarding sexuality, reputation, and character as she moves away from the familiar, of course, and we are left with the understanding that she is stronger because of it.
cj: Defining oneself, or where did I go?
I love the range of characters and, for once, a loving, protective, thinking dad even though he is over-involved with his work. Dad was amazingly controlled when he walked in on Sid and Brad horizontal on the couch! And Devin, her older brother who loves and respects Sid like crazy is just as great. Even though he is away at college, he is available to her when needed. I also love Sid’s commitment to the drums and the way they can transport her to another level of being. Sid has so many things right in her world, but true to her age, she is willing to recreate herself to reach a goal–to become the drummer for the jock band by taking the wardrobe advice from her cousin Heather, who only knows how to look good, which is what so many adolescent girls want. It takes being assaulted by the guys in that band and the near death of her best friend Taylor for Sid to figure out how she wants to define her life.
Sean: Struggling to be free to be you and me…
Like CJ, I was struck by Drummer Girl’s depiction of a strong and supportive father-daughter relationship, a relative rarity in YAL. Both this book and Fishtailing provide good launch pads for helping teen readers push beyond the cognitive restrictions of adolescent egocentrism and appreciating what Ian McEwan termed “the messiness of other minds.” In addition to the attitude that their experiences are unique and unprecedented in the history of adolescence, teens’ personal fables frequently blind them from granting their peers the same depth and complexity to their identities that they demand others acknowledge in them. This is especially true in the case of gender identity, which is dramatized well in Drummer Girl. Sid struggles to negotiate an appearance that will simultaneously provide physical comfort, allow her to achieve her artistic goals, signal her pop culture allegiances and not telegraph ambiguous messages about her sexual preferences and availability. This proves to be a tall order indeed, and Sid wants to be respected for her choices, yet when Taylor expresses his own difficulties navigating the identity politics of adolescence, Sid is shocked by the realization that she’s not alone in her struggles. She’s not callous and self-absorbed, just subject to the natural egocentrism that characterizes adolescent development, and conversations with adolescents about this novel could support the development of teens’ social intelligence in this regard. I must admit that the continued need for such narratives–particularly with regard to gender identity–in 2012 depresses me somewhat. With a childhood informed by Free To Be You And Me and a worldview at the dawn of my teaching career defined by the social critiques of Backlash, The Beauty Myth and Reviving Ophelia, I want to believe that Sid’s struggles are a throwback to a less-enlightened age, but that would make me just as guilty of oversimplifying the interior lives of others as are the characters in Drummer Girl. The educational psychologist in me, however, recognizes that as long as achieving identity, particularly gender identity, remains the central developmental task of adolescence, we will continue to need narratives like Drummer Girl to ensure that teens have access to–and mutual respect for–as diverse a range of safe pathways to identity achievement as possible.
Jennifer: Messages we send
The beauty of identity consciousness is at the heart of this novel. However, there are a few other issues that I thought stood out that would really resonate for teens. I will triple the applause for the strong and intelligent dad and brother (Devin), which is a very refreshing aspect of the plot. Characters obviously drive this narrative and Bass does a beautiful job of fleshing them out. Even the flat characters have a “roundness” to them in their participation of the emotional dismantling of Sid. Of another importance, however, is the gender aspect. We have not one, but two, teens who are either trying to differentiate themselves through gender or explore the true nature of their sexual identity. Both seem to eschew the homosexual option as “wrong,” and I wish there was a little more acceptance in that area. However, I understand how many teens have similarly homophobic reactions, so their reaction does ring true. I love the fact that Taylor and Sid are there for each other until Sid tries to change her image. Throughout the entire novel, I thought for sure that Sid would try to revert back to her tomboyish ways after Taylor exploded upon seeing her. However, Sid did stay true to her plan of reworking her image. This novel was gritty in its realistic portrayal of how teens negotiate their social environment and what impact certain events can have on the psyche from those experiences. A closer look at the actual writing shows that Bass ingeniously opens the novel with words and sentences that read like a drumbeat–an added bonus.
Summary: Fishtailing follows four unforgettable students—Natalie, Tricia, Kyle, and Miguel, who are in English class together. Told in free verse, this novel portrays fictional characters who have real problems that teens face every day. All four lives are fishtailing out of control.
Ricki: Multigenre form
Phillips includes a variety of forms that enrich the quality of her message. Each of the teens write poems for their English class, and the majority of the text is written in free verse. Additionally, there are email exchanges between the administration and the students’ English teacher. These emails show the adults’ perceptions of the teens. For example, after Natalie writes a poem showing she was sexually molested, her teacher writes an email to a counselor stating, “She attempts to draw attention to herself by including shocking, violent, nihilistic details. Perhaps you can speak to her about exercising some restraint” (Phillips 113). Phillips’ use of this form pushes readers to become frustrated with the lack of strong adult mentors to support these teens. In addition to poetry and email exchanges, some of the other forms used are: dialogue, notes, and formal letters. Phillips does not follow a conventional style, but instead, seems to intentionally select the best form to convey each situation or conflict.
Bucky: I love that this book makes me hate it.
I want to strangle recent transfer student Natalie, give her the release she’s looking for while denying her the thrill of blood-letting. I want to tell guidance counselor Mrs. Nishi that she is not unprofessional in her anger, that teachers might help save lives but we aren’t Saviors, that her anger makes her human, and sane. The plot of this text makes me want to scream about how we in education often liberally think we’re saving the one while putting the whole in danger. Natalie has been hurt, and I feel for her, of course, but Phillips makes it clear that she is the rabid dog of the bunch. Put her with the other dogs in hopes that they will make her healthy and what happens? She finds a way to bite them all. Upon expressing these strong reactions, I want to scream to myself for being so crass. The book forces me to walk the edge between passionate love and passionate hate. The book draws me in so powerfully and intensely that I want to kiss it for slapping me and punch it for knowing me. Fishtailing is not just a collection of poems, it is a quagmire, a vignette of contemporary youth culture and school culture that surely will embroil readers in a stew of mixed emotions. I can see many honest, raw conversations coming from a discussion of this book. Discussions on poetry, teaching, student-teacher relationships, professionalism, strengths/flaws in our current systems, and so many more. Phillips’ work is a powder keg. How can one read it without explosion?
Sean: Where form meets feeling
The emotional punch that Fishtailing delivers is, for me, a direct product of the kaleidoscopic method that Phillips employs to weave her story. What we get in the free verse poems is a direct line into each character’s immediate, conscious impressions of the events that unfold in the story, a distinctly different reading experience than first person prose narration. There isn’t a master voice to describe the scene and direct events in the reader’s mind, but rather a multiplicity of voices that attempt to convey only what’s in the front burner of each character’s consciousness as they experience the events of the story. For example, in response to Mrs. Farr’s feedback on poems that Kyle and Natalie (respectively) write for English class, Phillips presents two of the book’s shortest poems:
Both of these poems are concise distillations of the characters’ gut reactions and in the context of the larger book, provide the reader unfiltered access to their subjective experience. This is Impressionism with a capital I, storytelling without narration, not so much stream of consciousness as quick water-jet bursts of thought and sensation. That may sound like a recipe for something abstract, a tough Joycean read, but the miracle of Fishtailing is that the story couldn’t unfold more clearly. Phillips’ many jagged little tiles of free verse assemble themselves into a vivid and near seamless mosaic of mutual misunderstandings across generations, cultures and classes. Fishtailing will spark conversations among readers that hopefully go far toward building the “army of empathy” that David Levithan so eloquently envisioned at this past year’s ALAN Workshop.
KaaVonia: Free verse; could it have been rendered any other way?
I agree with Sean. I can’t imagine this novel, reading like poetry defined as “A composition designed to convey a vivid and imaginative sense of experience characterized by the use of condensed language chosen for its sound and suggestive power as well as its meaning,” being written in any other way. The “chorus of voices” has punch, immediacy that will not be ignored. It is a text that will not be satisfied until the reader is clutching his or her stomach, sickened by what we can do to each other. The characteristics of free verse novels that Patty Campbell puts forth in “Vetting the Verse Novel” could provide an interesting way to discuss Fishtailing:
- Short, fast read (How does Phillips reel us in so quickly?)
- Provocative themes
- Feelings/emotions are in the center
- Controversial issues
Jennifer: Beguiling format and characters
I love how Sean called this novel “Impressionism with a capital I”. To me, these bursts of poetry and their hard-hitting realism will truly resonate with teens, not to mention hone their inferencing skills. The stories of Natalie, Tricia, Miguel and Kyle are real and emulate the lives of any of the teens we encounter on a daily basis. I was enthralled at the juxtaposition of Ms. Farr, who seemed like the most out-of-touch teacher I’ve ever met. She was almost from a different era (the 50’s maybe?) where teachers were more than proper and didn’t realize how children’s lives at home or outside may impact their schoolwork, specifically their writing. Her “cardboard” character serves as a foil to modern day teachers to show how important our relationships with students can be. What would have happened if Ms. Farr had talked to Natalie or Tricia IN PERSON about their writing? Would she have been able to help avoid the tragedy that lies at the center of the novel’s climax? These characters were so realistic to me that I am second guessing their decisions and trying to negotiate a happier ending for everyone.
cj: Connecting to characters
The first time I read this book, I loved it. Then circumstances had me read it again, and in remembering it, I still loved it more in all the new things I found to love. In this last read, I felt like I was connecting with my students, four of the ones I had in classes over the years. These four characters are so real to me I can name their counterparts from my classroom. My favorite was Miguel, hurting so deeply and reliving that each night in his pulled-from-his-life nightmares. And their poetry–yes! Just like the kids in my classroom–from horror stories to fashion advice to personal questions, and always I was the one with the most questions. The poetry, particularly Kyle’s, improved with each poem, but I laughed so hard at his first “attempts.’
I don’t know if any of you had a student die while you were teaching, I experienced that far too many times, from suicides to house fires to gun shots–the class, the school, all of us went into shock. Bucky, I felt exactly like you did from one extreme to another. My emotions were ricocheting–particularly every time the teacher came on the page. I only forgave her when she cried in her car. As lonely and as each of these students.
Check out Coteau’s web site, www.coteaubooks.com, which provides some other
Canadian titles and a teacher’s guide for Fishtailing.