Picture your high school's outcasts. You know, those students who, sadly, most of your classmates think of as the fat kid, the dumb kid, the quiet kid, the loser, the loner. The kids no one talks to and no one really knows. Now imagine if you heard that this motley crew was about to become your high school's new varsity swim team. The same kids who are picked last for every team in gym, who have never been seen near the weight room or the track, who are the last people you would imagine wearing your high school letter jackets, will be making an appearance at the next pep rally.
Who could turn this crazy premise into an unforgettable story better than Chris Crutcher? Crutcher is known for writing about teen athletes in such a way that asks all the big questions of life. Crutcher is honest enough to write about the problems and even the tragedies that teens face. He also has a remarkable ability to find the good in the world. Plus, he's got a wicked sense of humor that he's not afraid to use, even when writing about the darkest side of humanity.
Crutcher's wry wisecracking is in full force in WHALE TALK's hero, T. J. Jones, whose good heart and flair for the sarcastic make him one of my favorite teen book characters ever. Despite his natural athletic ability, T. J. has always shunned Cutter High School's sports teams because, as he says, "something inside me recoils at being told what to do, and that doesn't sit well with most coaches, who are paid to do exactly that." But when a favorite teacher asks him to help start a swim team at Cutter, T. J. sees an opportunity to turn the school's narrow idea of what an athlete is --- privileged, good-looking, white, and male --- on its head.
T. J. gathers a group of misfits into a team consisting of what he calls "one swimmer of color, a representative from each extreme of the educational spectrum, a muscle man, a giant, a chameleon, and a one-legged psychopath." T. J. himself is part-black, part-Japanese and adopted. His ultimate goal is that every member of the team will earn a Cutter High School varsity letter.
Needless to say, T. J. faces angry opposition from the athletic establishment, and he and his coach spend much of the season maneuvering the politics of high school athletics. Meanwhile, during their daily workouts and long bus rides to swim meets, the guys on the team slowly come out from behind the labels their peers have forced them to hide behind.
As they do, WHALE TALK begins to shine. Crutcher's characters are the most true-to-life high schoolers I have ever read about. As the story unfolds, T. J. struggles to learn that it's not only high school's misfits that can't be judged at face value. Cutter High's bullies and victims alike share this essential human quality. None of them are perfect, but all of them have some quality that makes them so human, so familiar, that it hits you right in the heart.
Reviewed by Emily Mathieu on April 1, 2001
- Publication Date: April 1, 2001
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: Greenwillow Books
- ISBN-10: 0688180191
- ISBN-13: 9780688180195