I picked up Zebrafish at the Library after seeing that “The Graphic Classroom” had reviewed it (though I had yet to actually read said review). I thought, haven’t seen this one, looks kinda fun for kids (and perhaps, myself).
Zebrafish as written by Sharon Emerson & drawn by Renee Kurilla
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010
Hardcover, 120 pages. Juvenile Fiction, ages 7-10.
Vita Escolar is ready to rock. She’s got a band name, a used guitar, and three chords under her studded belt. All she needs are a few bandmates to complete the picture. Instead, an activist, two gamers, and an artist show up to her audition. none play a lick of music. But when she can’t shake’em off, she resigns herself to join’em. After all, a virtual band is better than no band…er, right? With a little help from Walt, Tanya, Plinko, and Jay, Vita learns you can’t always get what you want—but you might get what your friends need. And that’s way better. Oh yeah! ~publisher’s comments, jacket copy.
Welcome to a before-during-and-after-school special where we learn that “we can’t always get what we want,” friends and family are our greatest resource for getting what we need, and we can change the world in various and creative ways. Yep, a middle-grade offering driven by a message. But it isn’t all bad.
Zebrafish begins with the establishment of the three pairings of the six main characters whom all intersect in different ways before five of the six meet afterschool for the Vita’s band auditions. This culturally diverse cast must then find a way to pool their diverging interests for a cause. At first it is just an activity to do together as Vita still wants to rock and the others want to help her. As Vita learns more about her older brother’s medical research and new friend Tanya’s cancer, the band’s existence takes on greater meaning.
Zebrafish works hard to quickly solidify personalities and honor them with a consistency throughout. Each have their troubles (some more mild than others) but they each also have triumphs. In essence, while each character has individuality (if not some caricature) these are normal kids. The pairs are quietly disentangled so as to form solid connections with other members of the “band.” None of this character development feels unnatural, especially in limiting the story to an accessible length for young readers. By book’s end, the once “randomly” intersecting sets of two successfully become a singular party of 6+.
Within Zebrafish, Family is represented in different ways and to great significance. Vita and her elder brother Pablo with whom she resides are orphans. Or at least, there is no mention of a father and their mother has died of cancer. There is also a reference to social services and a move. I’m not completely sure what that is all about. But you have a brother supporting his still-in-school sister, and they rescue a stray dog. The first pair you meet is Plinko and Jay and you get that Jay is the best friend adopted into the family. He goes out to dinner with them, is comfortable in their home. Walt and Tanya are siblings, and Walt is very attentive to his sister. Zebrafish, of course, becomes a kind of tribe. Notably these relationships are strongly steeped in empathy; as if the basis of what makes people family is our formation of a strong empathic connection.
The title, Zebrafish, comes from an actual fish called zebrafish, and they are used by Pablo in his laboratory. He uses a mutant form to help him “watch cancer cells metastasize in real time” (40). So you not only gain insight into the lives of these children (of indiscriminate age/grade)–Tanya and Vita in particular–you get some interesting science information as well. Zebrafish is not subtle with its “teaching points.” The reader will learn interesting and important facts and they will gain insight.
I mentioned accessible length. I’m not sure Zebrafish had time to be subtle; that or it underestimates its critical audience. The book is 120 pages, but many of the panels are full-page, full-page with ~2 insets, or double-page; panels are large print, essentially–Child-friendly. Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries came to mind in turns because of the occasional removal frames and the stacking of speech bubbles. There were times I was a little confused in a conversation’s progression, but I could see the form of each page/panel trying to mind the young audience. It was fun and flexible, playful.
Combined with the bright and warm colors, the book finessed a lot of movement and energy. The clipped chapters also kept the ambitious level of content moving. 120 pages and 19 chapters, it felt stilted at turns. The pacing was awful actually (i.e. yes, dogs are cute and inclusion of animals in elementary school fare feels necessary, especially purple ones, and to include them in your song at the end—aww!—& for Vita to actually get what she wants for once. However, proportionally speaking, the pages dedicated to this venture…). I didn’t understand the chapter titles (even on the second try). And the segues were time stamps, “One week later,” etc. There were also a lot of illustrated time lapses to a single page and those were cleverly done. Necessarily, we had to get to know the characters, their situations, and then Zebrafish couldn’t come together in a week. Zebrafish had a lot to do in a short amount of time. Vita has lessons to learn; the constant drumming of “you don’t always get what you want”, but “you sometimes get what you need.” Vita’s life is all about that lesson; and so are all the other characters’ lives to some extent. But Vita is the one with whom the reader is to identify.
Zebrafish should also be fun and culturally resonant. The cartoon styling is familiar for a reason, an attractive choice for its intended audience and their teachers. The humor is suitable and dispersed liberally, keeping the reader engaged. Plinko and Jay are comic relief; which works to balance out the weightier situation with Walt & Tanya–Tanya who is a vibrantly drawn character who when not getting treatment, or is sick, is the “average” girl, replete with crush. I guess she counterbalance her story line on her own.
The endpage for the “Afterword”, pre-text (via Kurilla’s blogsite).
There is the “Afterword” on page 120 by Peter H. Reynolds encouraging the book’s close to function as an actual beginning. I can, of course, get behind being creative, and applying our creative interests toward a cause (see: TalyaWren). Zebrafish would be a book that could inspire, the “Afterword” is a mere punctuation mark. Big projects for causes for which we are passionate take creativity, organization, multiple talents, perseverance, cooperation… Zebrafish models this while providing the reader with the why. You get to use your gifts, your passions; you make friends; you learn the importance of/benefit from collaboration; you help people!—you could help people you know and love! Zebrafish does not go off without a hitch but it all works out. These children are capable, they are gifted and loving and determined—something with which the readers should identify. As Kevin Hodgson at “The Graphic Classroom” writes, “If you have students who are itching to do some community service project, ZEBRAFISH might be a nice companion story about how even young people can change the world for the better.” I think in a setting where you know you are in for something educational, Zebrafish will be more digestible treat. –or will it?
the book’s website, wherein Vita’s song is available.
a fascinating interview (one the young reader’s will enjoy, too). Renee Kurillo on illustrating Zebrafish among other things. Wherein I also discovered a reference to Zebrafish 2.
—noted: “a portion of the proceeds from this book is being donated to the Children’s Hospital Boston.”~inside cover and website. so, will this be coming to a classroom near you? Children, and likely many educators, are much more forgiving a reader than I am; the pacing may not even affect the younger reader the same.