________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 23 . . . . February 14, 2014


Skylark. (Orca Soundings).

Sara Cassidy.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2014.
130 pp., pbk., hc., pdf & epub, $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0590-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-0591-0 (hc.) ISBN 978-1-4598-0592-7 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0593-4 (epub).

Grades 7-11 / Ages 12-16.

Review by Devon Galitsky.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



In my mind's eye, the words of my poem scroll past, black letters painted on a white wall. This was how I imagined them when I memorized them. I watch the words flow past, but I can't speak. I swallow. It's like I have to lower my tongue into my neck to find my voice, to get it to spark. I look at Clem. He nods. He smiles. And there's my voice, dragged up against the side of my throat.

I don't know what mercy is, but I have met pity. Pity is a wilted flower. A rusting blade. It would cut you if it wasn't so pathetic. Pity doesn't smell good. If mercy is oasis, pity is penitentiary. Pity is bitter, a bite of something rotten. Even while pity's eyes well up, brim with do-goodness, pity sneers. Pity is so small it has no heart. Pity is all the rich have to offer--they hold it toward you, a dead, mangled bird in their hands, a little bundle of sorriness. Oh, how good pity feels, its sticky warmth, its sickly charm. But pity sits in the gut, souring, like guilt. Pity puts you in your place. It can't call you home. Poor, poor, poor, poor pity.

As I read, my voice rises. It stretches thin and wavers. My face feels like it is being stung by wasps. I run out of breath. My words crack. My heart, well, it's a wrecking ball. It tries to break through my ribs, make a run for it. I stick it out, though. I don't vomit and I don't forget a word. I don't pull out my cheat sheet. And when I'm done, the audience doesn't look at me with pity. They clap! Somehow, my rubber legs carry me back to our table where Clem sits, freaked out.

In Skylark, the main character, Angie Kilpatrick, finds a sense of belonging and develops a sense of her own talent in a slam poetry club. Her exact age is not specified, but Angie appears to be in high school, though not in a high enough grade for graduation to be on her mind. Along with her mother and brother, Angie is homeless and waiting until they finally reach the top of the list for public housing. The three live in their car, a Buick Skylark for which the book is named. The theme of home as necessity to a sense of self runs throughout the novel, whether home is a physical place or a feeling of safety and belonging. In a typical linear plot and from first person perspective, Angie's story shows her journey from literal homelessness, and uncertainty about where she belongs in a figurative sense, to being given a home in public housing and a belief that she has found her personal passion in slam poetry. Running parallel to Angie's rising star in the world of slam poetry are her memories of her dad who has left the family home in search of work, and whom the main character sometimes doubts will return. Her dad's departure signalled the initial loss of her home, not only because her mom can no longer afford rent, but because Angie's family is missing a key member. At the book's end, Angie's dad's return is imminent when a house comes available for the Kilpatrick family, bringing the story full circle and to a relatively satisfying close. The final line of the book restates the entire drive of the novel when, upon reciting her poetry during the slam finals, Angie realizes that she doesn't care whether or not she wins the finals. Angie states that "all I care about is that I've found home."

      This contemporary fiction book would be ideally suited to middle school readers, ages 12-15, because the main character seems to be a young high school student, though it could easily be relatable to a high school student as well. Skylark is a high-low reader which means that, though the writing style is simple enough not to be intimidating for readers whose literacy skills aren't quite up to grade-level, the story deals with gritty subject matter of interest to young adult readers. Overall, this effect works quite well, though the focus on words and word play may seem a little out of place given that the intended audience may struggle with some of the vocabulary. An example of this can be found in a piece of slam poetry that Angie recites:

a clock ticks on the mantelpiece it's mechanical heart off-balance tick-TOCK tick-TOCK tick-TOCK as if the man's house is on a slant now the pendulum called somewhere deeper (p. 90)

      Skylark not only challenges readers by using potentially unfamiliar vocabulary, but it also uses a fair amount of metaphor, especially as Angie, herself, grows more comfortable with language and the power of literary devices. She begins to understand her world through metaphor; for instance, she realizes, "scars are zippers--you open them up and stories tumble out." (p. 105) The metaphors, however, don't become too forced, thankfully. This means that Skylark genuinely shows the reader the benefit of being able to express oneself through words, whether written or spoken, something which may need to be underlined to struggling readers.

      Ultimately, I would recommend Skylark for middle school readers who struggle with reading yet want to read something that suits their life stage while building their skill. The story, is short, has limited depth and is in no way literary fiction, but it isn't intended to be. The plot is believable and has quick pacing, making it a pleasure to read. It is important to note that this story does contain explicit language which is why I recommend it for older children. The swearing is not gratuitous or excessive, however, and helps to develop an authentic teenage voice in the book. The book fulfills expectations for a high-low reader and would make a great addition to any middle school library.


Devon Galitsky, a literature student at the University of the Fraser Valley, lives in Chilliwack, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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