I love reading “first day of school” books at the beginning of September, and found Bluefish by Pat Schmatz just in time. Bluefish begins with Travis’s first day at a new school navigating his locker combination: “slowly spinning the dial. Seventeen…back to the left…” Over the summer, Travis has had to abruptly relocate from the small farmhouse that he shared with his grandfather and their dog Roscoe to a new town, a new house, and a new school. And the biggest change of all is that Roscoe isn’t with them any more; Travis couldn’t find him before they had to move, and he holds onto the hope that Roscoe is like one of those dogs he’s read about in the newspaper, those dogs who wander hundreds of miles from an old house to a new one to find their owners. Travis even attempts to speed up the process by leaving school early and walking in the direction of the old farmhouse to resume his search.
Travis’s story is interwoven with Velveeta’s. Velveeta (her real name is Vida) is in Travis’s class, and her journal entries give a first-person account of how she’s dealing with starting a new year of school after a tumultuous summer. She spends most of her time in an abandoned trailer in the trailer park she lives in that once belonged to an older man named Calvin, a place that is “the safest and best place I know.” Velveeta takes refuge from her absent mom and drug dealer brother, and writes, “Everything’s exactly the same except for how much you’re not here. The empty air in this trailer weighs eighty trillion tons, and it’s jumping up and down on my lungs like an elephant on a trampoline. But that beats my creepy brother’s wide-alive air any day. I’m going to stay here until he leaves.”
Both Travis and Velveeta have a secret, and both are trying to come to terms with important events that happened to each of them the summer before. They become unlikely friends at school, and start to ask the right questions of one another. Velveeta learns that Travis can’t read, and with the help of a teacher named Mr. McQueen and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, they begin to change this. Travis takes much longer to get at the heart of Velveeta’s story, and it isn’t until near the end of the book that he gets a clearer picture of the reality of her life, which he has only seen glimpses of.
Travis and Velveeta are exceptional characters, and both points of view are equally entertaining and interesting. I really enjoyed Bluefish for the way that it explored reading, and especially Travis’s experience with learning how to read as an adolescent.