By Kate Hattemer
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
When NetGalley sent out an email of hot upcoming titles, I was instantly drawn to THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY. I wanted to know what a vigilante poet was. Add in that those vigilante poets' nemesis is a reality television show (a very current YA trend), and I was there.
Ethan and his three best friends, Luke, Jonathon, and Elizabeth, are students at Selwyn Academy. It's an arts academy, where the halls are filled with conversations such as Monet versus Manet. But lately, the only conversation is about For Arts' Sake. FAS is a new reality TV show filming at Selwyn, featuring Selwyn students. As they discover just how fake the show is, they decide to do something about it. They'll write, print, and distribute a long poem (inspired by Ezra Pound's Cantos) to protest FAS and rile the student body. Things don't go as planned when ringleader Luke joins the show and Ethan, Jonathon, and Elizabeth are left to fight alone.
This book is insane and I love it. Debut author Kate Hattemer does an amazing job of keeping the plot from tipping too far into unreality. The characters are studying the Cantos in English, which is why they have long poems on the brain. Ethan doesn't actually get the Cantos all that easily and has to think about one the language means. (And of course this all means that Pound gets quoted frequently, and his language is as lovely as ever.) Then there's the poetry by Luke and the others, which is appealing and clever, but not too much so for high school students.
I also really loved the characters of THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY. Several of the antagonists are just good people who could have done better. (The vice principal is cartoonishly evil, but what vice principle isn't? And one of the contestants doesn't have any redeeming features, but that's clearly because narrator Ethan loathes him.) Ethan is a talented, nice kid, but he clearly has a lot to learn about interacting with people, particularly those he likes. (Sometimes the book isn't subtle as I'd like about that point.) The two girl characters are fantastic. Elizabeth (who I assume is black due to her dreads) is as involved in the plans as any of the boys, makes sure that her point of view is heard, and drives recklessly. Maura, a contestant on the show and Ethan's crush, really doesn't care how the show portrays her because she just wants the scholarship money to go to Julliard since she can dance. Maura doesn't think twice about trashing her reputation for her arts' sake.
I think THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY is a seriously great book. It delivers and fast and funny story about teenage rebellion while contemplating the many ways reality TV is totally fake, friendship is hard (especially because people change or are never who you thought they were), and the tragically short lives of pocket pets. It earns that "poets" in its title as well. The poetry in the book is accessible, but not dumbed down. THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY revels in how poetry can be a force. I am all for that, and all for this book.