Author: Liane Shaw
Expected Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Publisher: Second Story Press
Rating: ★★★/ 3 Stars
Genre: Contemporary YA
Ryan finds his freedom in the water, where he is not bound by gravity and his wheelchair. When he rescues his schoolmate, Jack, from the water their lives become connected, whether they like it or not. Ryan keeps Jack’s secret about that day in the water, but he knows that Jack needs help. The school is full of rumors about Jack’s sexuality, and he has few friends. Almost against his better judgement, Ryan decides to invite Jack on a trip to Comic Con he’s planned with his best friend Cody, the captain of the school’s swim team. The three boys make an unlikely combination, but they will each have the chance to show whether they are brave enough to go against the stereotypes the world wants to define them by.
Trigger Warning: failed suicide attempt by drowning, ableist language, queer slur, and homophobia
I received a free eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Caterpillars Can’t Swim took off to a very rough opening to for me. The lack of trigger warning in this kind of book could be very dangerous.
Ryan and Jack meet under very unique circumstances as Ryan pushes himself out of his wheelchair into the river to save Jack from drowning. The question that’s on everyone’s mind is whether Jack did it on purpose or not. It was clear to me that some part of him did do it on purpose.
Jack was such a sympathetic character. Being gay in a town so small that ran rampant with slurs that could put down the most optimistic person is not easy. I could feel his agony, the way keeping his identity, his self, a secret from the only person whose acceptance he sought out: his mother. I can’t help but wish that Jack’s story was told from his own point of view. I really minded that Ryan acted as a savior to Jack. I realize that Ryan himself is marginalized as he’s disabled, but I don’t like that a gay boy’s story is told from the point of view of a straight boy. I felt very on edge at times. I was defensive because I just thought: “Is this how people in my life would react if they found out I was like Jack?” Both depression and homosexuality are not light topics, so to have them as big deals in this book and told in Ryan’s voice was not a smooth sailing in my opinion. Had this book been in dual point of views, where we could see into Jack’s mind, I’d not have taken a star from this rating. Also, since this book obviously has a theme of teaching a lesson of tolerance, I think if a straight kid is going to read this to learn tolerance, it’d be best if they got into the mindset that Jack is in, with proper trigger warnings of course considering Jack’s depression and suicidal thoughts.
Another issue that made me groan with annoyance when reading 75% of this book is Cody. Cody comes off as this annoying guy to be honest. At least, Ryan knew that Cody is like the other insensitive homophobes in town but I didn’t like how there seemed to be many excuses for him. Sure, he turns over a leaf and develops as a person, but I wish it came earlier on. What I gleaned from Ryan and Cody’s friendship is that Ryan doesn’t really have any other friends besides Cody, so he settles for the insensitive Cody because it’s his only choice. It’s only when the cast grows with the introduction of Jack then Clare and other minor characters, that Ryan stands up for Cody’s brash personality. I also could see how he kind of idolized him because Cody had what Ryan didn’t: The ability to be hyperactive physically.
I can’t judge this book on its disability representation, but I could see that the author tried to present Ryan as any other boy, who wanted to blend into the crowd especially because his disability either made him a source of wary or pity. Both Ryan and Jack have very visible marginalization, and while I’m not equating disability with homosexuality, I can see how the two kind of hit it off, although Ryan was very reluctant in the beginning of his friendship with Jack. The two seemed like an unbalanced duo the majority of the time since Ryan had saved Jack and felt like he had a debt. He kept worrying that Jack would attempt something like the first time that he couldn’t stop stressing.
A great deal of the book occurs at a Comic Con where Jack, Cody and Ryan open up to one another, despite their wish not to, and that’s when it really picked up for me. Clare, who’s a love interest for Ryan, was an interesting character and I kind of wanted more of her since she provided with a fresh set of eyes onto the whole situation with Ryan’s savior complex when it comes to Jack.
A couple of things that I did not like: Ableist language such as “demented” “whack” “crazy,” the queer slur, as well as a lot of instances where Jack was referred to by his suicide attempt rather insensitively.