Thirteen-year-old Travis has a secret: he can’t read. But a shrewd teacher and a sassy girl are about to change everything in this witty and deeply moving novel. Travis is missing his old home in the country, and he’s missing his old hound, Rosco. Now there’s just the cramped place he shares with his well-meaning but alcoholic grandpa, a new school, and the dreaded routine of passing when he’s called on to read out loud. But that’s before Travis meets Mr. McQueen, who doesn’t take “pass” for an answer—a rare teacher whose savvy persistence has Travis slowly unlocking a book on the natural world. And it’s before Travis is noticed by Velveeta, a girl whose wry banter and colorful scarves belie some hard secrets of her own. With sympathy, humor, and disarming honesty, Pat Schmatz brings to life a cast of utterly believable characters—and captures the moments of trust and connection that make all the difference.
- ISBN: 9780763653347
- Author: Schmatz, Pat
- Published: 2011 , Candlewick Press
- Themes: Disability, Literacy, Middle School, Secret, Teachers
- Descriptors: Intermediate (ages 9-14), Realistic Fiction, United States
- No. of pages: 233
One thought on “Bluefish”
In Bluefish, author Pat Schmatz gives readers an insider’s view of the challenges of learning and teaching in middle school. The story centers around three students, Travis, Velveeta, and Bradley. Travis, new to the school, orphaned, and being raised by his grandfather who battles alcoholism, is a non-reader. Velveeta, who stops doing homework as she grieves for her adult mentor who recently passed away, has a sassy way of talking and being in the world. Bradley, the only black student in the school, is studious, short, not athletic, and is often bullied. This unlikely trio recognizes in each other the inability to “fit in.” Mr. McQueen, a reading teacher and self-proclaimed “subversive” who refuses to focus his teaching on test taking, sets out to instill in students a “passion for the written word.” The friendship between Travis and Velveeta is spurred along by Mr. McQueen’s teaching methods. The book’s title comes from Travis’s self-perception as a “bluefish”—stupid, angry, and alone—a holdover from his placement in the lowest level reading group when he was in third grade.
While the Mr. McQueen, the teacher in Bluefish, provides the initiating action and the interactions that bind together the lives of the story’s main characters, as well as the story itself, the teacher is not necessarily in the forefront of the story. I believe that young readers of this book will be focused, as was I, on Travis’s search for his dog and his rocky relationship with his grandfather as well as Velveeta’s loss of her adult friend and lack of parental care from her mother. However, Mr. McQueen is clearly defined as one of those teachers who seems to have the ability of recommending books that suit the personality or lives of his students. And, as good literature does, the stories he recommends make permanent impressions on their lives and thinking.
Of course, good teachers recognize that teachers of reading need to be “readers” who read extensively as well as teachers who care enough to become involved with their students’ lives and needs. Mr. McQueen has these qualities. His approach to Travis’s need to learn to read was not one I have used in the past—circling unknown words– but it does make sense to use such a method in the case of Travis who needs to have immediate success with word recognition. This strategy combined with the use of a book to which Travis can relate provides him with personal connections to motivate his learning. While we don’t have further insight as to other instructional strategies this teacher might employ, we do see how he has impacted these young individuals who are dealing with serious personal issues.
I would like to know more of Mr. McQueen, although I believe for the purposes here, we know enough. I think one overall theme in Bluefish is that of relationships—each child’s unique family relationships, their relationship with each other, and the approach that Mr. McQueen has to build a relationship with each student. I was reminded of Donnalyn Miller who, in The Book Whisperer (2009, Jossey-Bass), shares her strategies of getting books and students connected.
Mr. McQueen’s eight-grade class frames the story’s literacy context. We are introduced to his classroom by the walls of books that intimidate Travis, a non-reader. The students in this class are given the responsibility to define “literature” and have free choice in selecting reading material. If they are unable to make a decision, Mr. McQueen learns about their background knowledge or experiences and helps them find a book. Travis is attracted to Haunt Fox by Jim Kjelgaard, a book with a dog chasing a fox on the cover. Travis makes a text-to-self connection of having seen fox kits in the wild and of recently losing his own dog. Travis turns the pages, looks at the pictures, but cannot access the meaning in the story.
McQueen holds individual conferences with the readers in his class. When he meets with Travis, this teacher reads aloud to the boy. “McQueen’s voice brought a starless winter swamp night to life, with rattling leaves and the movement of the fox through the snow” (p. 26). Travis enters the story by listening but when McQueen uncovers his secret, the teacher demands to know if this 13-year-old wants to learn to read—better, easily, without so much struggle. When Travis comes to McQueen and says yes, the two meet before school three days a week to tackle this challenge.
Velveeta also discovers that Travis cannot read. Following McQueen’s suggestion, she is reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, in which a very intelligent girl who cannot read teaches herself by circling words. This is the strategy McQueen uses with Travis, who tries to recall his teacher’s voice reading to him as he circles forty-one words on the first page alone. During their conferences, McQueen continues to read aloud to Travis and then gives him a short list of words to memorize. Velveeta also takes up the challenge and quizzes Travis on his words.
Although Velveeta lets Travis know that it takes Liesel, the main character in The Book Thief, a long time to teach herself to read by circling words and Travis will get help from using the Kurzweil machine made available to him in the library, I wondered about word recognition alone as a strategy for teaching reading. While Mr. McQueen has many fine qualities as a teacher, he doesn’t seem to engage students in comprehension strategies that may better support their journeys to become independent readers. Yes, he helps Travis by selecting words that connect to the boy’s background knowledge, but there are other strategies that are useful to striving readers. In addition, the students in Mr. McQueen’s class do not engage in literature discussions and lack opportunities to learn from each other’s responses to their reading.
Perhaps this is too technical for a work of fiction, yet a bit more expertise from a reading teacher could have strengthened his role in helping Travis develop the tools he needs to become an effective reader. In the end, it is the trio—Travis, Velveeta, and Bradley—who join together as a select group of “bluefish” to support each other through this challenging time in all of their lives.