Title: The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy
Author: Kate Hattemer
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: April 8, 2014
I was pumped when I saw this book on the shelf at my local library. I had seen it at Barnes and Noble earlier this month and was tempted to buy it, despite my firm belief in waiting to purchase books until they come out in paperback.
I’d normally summarize the story myself to give a little context, but why not let the author do it? A brief summary of the book, from Kate Hattemer’s blog:
“We have to do something!” That’s what Luke Weston keeps telling his friends. Selwyn Academy has been hijacked by For Art’s Sake, a sleazy reality television show, and Luke’s fed up. Ethan Andrezejczak, Luke’s henchman and best friend, shrugs and nods along. He doesn’t really mind the show. It lets him stare at ballerina Maura Heldsman without being creepy. And he’s fine with his life: teaching circus tricks to his beloved gerbil Baconnaise, teasing his four-year-old triplet sisters, and hanging out with his friends, Luke and nerdily brilliant Jackson and smart, sharp, neon-garbed Elizabeth.
Nonetheless, he’ll go along with Luke. He always does. In the tradition of Ezra Pound, the foursome secretly writes and distributes a long poem to protest the show. They’re thrilled to have started a budding rebellion.
But the forces behind For Art’s Sake are craftier than they seem. The web of betrayal stretches farther than Ethan could have ever imagined. It’s up to him, his friends, and maybe even Baconnaise to save Selwyn.
An art school viciously infiltrated by the horrific influence of reality television – but only Ethan and his friends understand the full implications of For Art’s Sake‘s take over. The show, which is filmed at school and whose contestants come from the talented school population, is not what it seems. As the characters so appropriately reference Hippocrates aphorism “ars longa, vita brevis” (“art is long, but life is short”), they have to work together to make sure that it’s real art that lasts, not just the premise of art existing through a sleasy corporate enterprise. Ethan and his friends Jacskon and Elizabeth hop on board Luke’s plan to create an underground movement to try to bring to light the realities of the school’s investment in the show. Together, they work to create Contracantos, a continuing poem that harkens back to the age of Ezra Pound and his Cantos, illegally printed and distributed to create a stir throughout Selwyn. Unfortunately, things don’t work out as they planned – when do they ever?
This book explores the power of the press, the influence of the media, and what happens when a group of rag-tag students try to subvert popular culture for the sake of real art and literature. The relationships between the friends are both funny and real. Too often, YA literature follows groups of people that seem either too perfect, too warped, or too fake – but Hettemer gets these friends just right. It’s believable, and throughout the book I found myself groaning, cheering, and biting my nails at their antics. Their Contracantos were thoroughly entertaining as well – their inclusion at the beginning of each chapter actually had me laughing out loud at times.
The one complaint that I have is that some parts of the book seem just a little too… pretentious. Ezra Pound is a focus – which called to my own heart, as an English major – but for readers who couldn’t care less about expatriate writers or the impact of literature or the meaning of poetry, I think parts of the book might loose their interest. There were references throughout the book that would also fly right over less educated readers’ heads. At one point, a code name is “Avogadro,” for someone who’s a mole; luckily, I took chemistry in high school, so I caught the connection to Avogradro’s number, the mol (which is, for those curious, 6.o2 x 10^23 – though what it’s used for, I can’t begin to remember). I caught these sorts of things throughout, but younger readers, or readers who didn’t pay as much attention in school, might get lost in the myriad of intellectual references and allusions.
But overall, I genuinely enjoyed reading The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. It was witty, it was real, and the ideas at its heart mattered. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good realistic fiction read, as well as anyone who has a love for literature, poetry, and art. I’m also planning on buying a copy for my personal library in the near future – once it comes out in paperback, if I can wait that long. Thanks for the great read, Kate Hattemer.
5 out of 5 stars.