The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer won me over on the first page with this line: I had planned to write this on the living-room couch, but I have triplet sisters, and they are four years old. Or was it on the second page, concurrent with the first appearance of Miki Frigging Reagler? If it wasn’t either of those, it was on page four, where our inimitable narrator Ethan Andrezejczak goes into the first of many tangents about his love of the tricolon, a rhetorical device that uses a “succession of three elements."
It’s about a group of juniors at the titular Selwyn Academy, a Minnesotan high school for the arts. There’s Luke, the Popular; Jackson, the Hacker; Elizabeth, the Artist; and Ethan, the Untalented. When an art-themed reality show gets permission to follow selected students over the course of the year, Luke predicts that nothing good will come of it. Before long, his prediction is proved quite right: Students stop debating “the merits of Aida versus Rigoletto” in the hallway and start debating the merits of whichever boys happen to be vying for the heart (and by “the heart,” I mean “the pants”) of Maura, the beautiful ballerina on the show. The administration flat-out refuses to acknowledge any drawbacks to their plan, even stooping to censorship in their effort to stamp out dissent. But, as you may have guessed from the title, our heroic quartet FIGHTS BACK.
To celebrate Ethan’s love of threes, here are three things I adored about the book:
The humor. I laughed SO MUCH while reading it. Laughed and laughed and laughed. If Ethan wasn’t “stewing in the Crock-Pot of betrayal,” he was taking a “dumbwaiter ride to hell,” or becoming part of a “tornado of justice.” I loved the scenes with his triplet sisters; Ethan’s ongoing willingness to play with language (the past tense of high five is apparently “high fove”); and the many, many literary references (“...we were kicking it old-school, searching his files in the grand tradition of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”).
It was completely unpretentious. You’d think, with a storyline in which Ezra Pound figures in heavily, in which a plot twist hinges on a favorite punctuation mark, set at an arts high school of all places, that this book would be ALARMINGLY PRETENTIOUS. But it isn’t, not even a little bit.
Everything else. That’s totally cheating, I know, but A) I couldn’t DECIDE on just one more thing, B) I don’t want to give away more than I already have, and C) it’s true.
Like Beauty Queens, it is utterly, hilariously contemptuous of reality television, but it doesn’t dismiss or underestimate its hideous, insidious power.
Like Paper Towns, it deals with the idea of creating idealized fantasy versions of other people, and the impossibility and unfairness of expecting those fantasies to be true.
Like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, it features characters engaging in shenanigans in the defense—and pursuit—of artistic honesty and to make a larger point.
Vigilante Poets has plenty in common with those books and others, but it is also very much in its own realm, in terms of voice, theme and intellect. The romance is effective and believable and unexpected; the thread about hero worship is heartbreaking, emotionally honest and so, so relatable; the idea of “existing as a moral being,” and the tragedy of realizing that you’ve failed in that endeavor, is not one I can remember seeing dealt with in YA, well, ever.
I read, I loved, I recommend!
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.