presented by Peter H. Reynolds and FableVision
written by Sharon Emerson
drawn by Renée Kurilla
A sense of loneliness pervades the beginning of this graphic novel, which presents a glimpse of six young adult characters, most notably showing purple haired Vita and her older brother Pablo, who have lost their mother to cancer and live on their own, and activist Tanya, who is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. Colors are muted grays, browns and blues, which combine with distant shots and silhouettes to create a feeling of isolation.
In late summer, Vita impulsively buys a used guitar and when the ambiguous middle/high school year begins, she holds a meeting to recruit for her new band, Zebrafish. Friends Jay and Plinko, Tanya, and Tanya’s brother Walt stop in to audition, each for different reasons. Although no one but Vita even claims to play an instrument, they soon hatch a plan to create a music video centered around Walt’s art and Vita’s guitar, to perform at a fundraising concert Tanya hopes to hold for one of her many causes. As they carry out their plans, the members of the “band” find that they are becoming friends. Images are more colorful and contain busy dialogue, leading to a more cheerful tone.
One day, Vita stops by Pablo’s lab at the hospital and runs into Tanya. She is left in shock after learning that Tanya has leukemia. Pablo shows her around his lab upstairs, including tanks of clear zebrafish that help him study potential cures for cancer. He tells her about a PCR machine that he can’t afford, but that would speed up his research. Vita decides that the concert is the perfect way to help fundraise for the machine that could help her friend. When the day of the concert arrives, there is a full house. All is well until, mid show, Vita’s dog bites through the power cord and everything goes black. Vita carries through and finishes the show with wild applause from the audience, making school history.
In the short, inspirational afterward, Peter Reynolds describes how change happens “to you or by you.” He encourages readers to find something they care about and do something to make a difference.
Although Zebrafish can feel a bit fragmented, humor works its way into the more serious elements of the story to create an entertaining journey into friendship, band-creation, and taking action. The diverse group of cool-looking kids and the colorful illustrations will instantly attract readers. The message of social action is one rarely seen in graphic novels, and this may be the perfect book for readers who want older characters and need an empowering message. Recommended for grades 4+ but includes nothing that would make it inappropriate for younger children.
Zebrafish revolves around cancer and cancer research. On the book jacket, it states that a portion of the proceeds is being donated to Children’s Hospital Boston. It also may be interesting to note that text and illustration copyrights also go to Children’s Hospital Boston. What does this say about choices of the publishers and authors? How do other businesses make choices about their products that can be beneficial to the community?
Kids love graphic novels. There is something so cool about reading both words and images and I know I feel totally absorbed each time I begin a good graphic novel. Have students create their own graphic novel, either based on Zebrafish (introduce characters, present problem, think of ways they can take action to fix it), relay information about an issue, or create their own story.
The characters in Zebrafish make a difference by using their talents and skills to raise money for a cause they believe in. Brainstorm a few ideas of ways every-day kids can use their strengths to support a good cause.