Sometimes it takes more than one book to figure out what the fuss is about. You know, when you read your first novel in a certain genre or subgenre, or by a particular author, and you enjoyed it, but haven't been converted into a fan. Then one or two or three books later, you stumble across the book that makes the proverbial lightbulb click on and you finally understand what the big deal is.
I'd read a couple of Chris Crutcher books before and liked them well enough, but (and this may be heresy for a YA librarian) I didn't think they were all that amazing. Then I read Whale Talk and said, "Oh, so that's why people are such big Chris Crutcher fans."
So, Whale Talk.
Cutter High School is obsessed with sports. Which is one of the reasons T. J. Jones sticks out. T. J. (full legal name: The Tao Jones), adopted as a child by white parents, is "black. And Japanese. And white. Politically correct would be African-American, Japanese-American, and what? Northern-European American?" (Though you can't exactly tell from the book cover.) He's one of the few people of color in town and one of the best athletes in school, even though he refuses to join any of its sports teams.
Sports, to T. J., should be about sportsmanship and competing against an opponent at his best. Not cheering when an opponent gets hurt or an obsession with letter jackets, like it is in Cutter. He's also got a problem with authority figures telling him what to do, another reason why T. J. doesn't want to play football or basketball, despite the avid pursuit of the coaches.
When one T. J.'s teachers, mostly in an effort to avoid being an assistant coach on the wrestling team, proposes starting a swim team, T. J. is therefore reluctant to participate at first. Until he realizes putting together a team consisting of people who "would look most out of place in a Cutter High School letter jacket" (namely, "one swimmer of color, a representative from each extreme of the educational spectrum, a muscle man, a giant, a chameleon, and a psychopath") would be an excellent way of pissing off those people whose lives seem to revolve around said Cutter High School letter jackets.
Over the course of the year, a camaraderie develops among the swimmers. As T. J. battles for all swim team members to receive letter jackets, he confronts coaches, student-athletes, and one particular racist and abusive Cutter High alumnus who don't want to change the status quo. Yet despite the (often unsubtle) messages and sometimes painful incidents T. J. encounters, the story does not feel didactic or heavy. The way Crutcher balances his storylines, T. J.'s relationship with his father, and, most notably, the angst vs. humor level, make Whale Talk an unexpectedly enjoyable read.
Part of what I liked best about Whale Talk is how it's about racism, but not really *about* race. I know, this needs clarification. What I'm trying to say is that 1) while racism is an important part of the story, it's not the only thing that's going on; and 2) it does not provide internal conflict, but external conflict. T. J. doesn't have a problem being mixed-race; he is who he is. Although some people have a problem with it, T. J. doesn't allow it to define him or for others to use it as a way of denigrating him.
Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.
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