By Kevin Hodgson
Rock and roll, plus some scientific inquiry and a splash of civic action, are at the center of ZEBRAFISH, written by Sharon Emerson. The story revolves around a girl, Vita, who wants to put together a band and put on a concert to raise money for a worthy cause. Eventually, she pinpoints Leukemia as the cause worth rocking for because one of her friends has secretly been battling it, and Vita enlists some new friends to join her. The goal? Raise enough money from a concert to purchase a machine for the hospital that will help speed along cancer research.
The book comes close to being a bit too sappy at times, but what saves it is the earnestness of Vita, the caring role of her older brother (a scientist studying Zebrafish in order to find a cure for cancer), and the hodgepodge of friends. A nice dose of humor helps, too (including the audition session that comes across as a sort of Spinal Tap-inspired scene). Gaming, virtual bands and other hip topics make their way into the story, too, giving it a fresh, modern feel.
The art by illustrator Renee Kurilla is colorful, vibrant and, in particular, the use of purple in Vita’s hair and other elements of the story bring a nice constant color palette to the artwork.
IN THE CLASSROOM
One thing I did like is that the story does nicely mix in science (the use of the odd Zebrafish as a symbol of the band and a cure for sickness, the tricky subject of battling cancer in a laboratory, etc.) with the power of creating music for change, and the use of social action by passionate students on a mission.
There’s also the backstory of Vita and her brother, a doctoral student who is raising Vita after their mother died. I could see a few topics here worth pursuing in writing and research. If you have students who are itching to do some community service project, ZEBRAFISH might be a nice companion story about how even young people can change the world for the better.
Reading level: Ages 9-12
I recommend ZEBRAFISH for an elementary classroom, and maybe a middle school reader could find interest in the story. I want to note, too, that the book is a collaborative team project by Fablevision, which is a company that creates interesting online, animated books and stories. I loved the endnote by Peter Reynolds, founder of Fablevision, where he encourages readers to pick a “challenge” and take action to change the world for the better, just like Vita and her friends have done. Also, proceeds from the sale of ZEBRAFISH benefit the Children’s Hospital in Boston, which is yet another reason to consider adding this one to your classroom library.