July 26, 2017

Caterpillars Can't Swim

Written by Liane Shaw
Second Story Press
256 pp.
Ages 13-18
September 2017

Though sixteen-year-old Ryan Malloy is often treated differently in his small town due to his use of a wheelchair, everything is right with the world when he is swimming.  Because he’s up early even on days when he hasn’t got swim team practice, Ryan witnesses someone disappearing beneath the surface of their local river.  Throwing himself off the bridge, ultimately injuring his shoulder, Ryan saves a school mate, Jack Pedersen, from drowning.  But did Ryan really help Jack out?  When small-town gossip and rumours about Jack’s sexuality and the bullying he endures because of it brings Ryan to Jack’s defense and side repeatedly, the two develop a tenuous friendship.
Not that I'm saying everyone here is like that.  They aren't.  It's just that it seems like this town is frozen in time and a lot of attitudes around here are stuck in the ice.  My mother says she spends a lot of her time at school working on thawing out the attitudes of the kids so that someday things will be different.
   I don't think it's working yet.
 (pg. 10)
Although Ryan’s best friend Cody is somewhat awkward about Jack and about Ryan’s new relationship with him, the three boys’ embark on a summer trip to a local ComicCon.  During those two days, much is revealed about the teens’ fears, attitudes and confusion about each other but also exposed are the hurts, judgments and burdens they all carry, regardless of the limitations or strengths others perceive them to have.  Whether their relationships, new and old, are enough to make a positive difference in their lives is only evident after a stunning climax of rejection, desperation, and intervention.

Liane Shaw, a former educator including special education resource teacher, has never shied away from tough topics like foster care (Fostergirls, Second Story, 2011), physical or emotional limitations (The Color of Silence, Second Story, 2013) and ASD (Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Second Story, 2016). As in her earlier young adult books, she tackles the prejudices people assert on those who are different, whether perceived or real, and turns them into understanding and acceptance for those differences.  Whether caterpillars can or can’t swim is irrelevant.  What’s important is knowing that metamorphosis is foreseeable and all butterflies and moths are to be appreciated.

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(A version of this review was originally written for and published in Quill & Quire, as noted in the citation below.)

Kubiw, H. (2017, September). [Review of the book Caterpillars Can't Swim, by Liane Shaw]. Quill & Quire, 83 (7): 39.

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