I am not often presented with verse-novels to review, and this is a shame since many teachers appreciate the opportunity to share them with students as a means to broaden their understanding of poetry and its relevance today. Certainly, Steven Herrick’s scintillating verse-novel Lonesome Howl is appreciated at my school by senior students and teachers alike, who relish his economical use of language and vivid description. Kathryn Apel’s verse-novel On Track addresses this same need albeit for a slightly younger audience.
Told in a switching narrative style, On Track tells the story of brothers Shaun and Toby. Shaun, the athletic and academically gifted older brother, finds learning and life effortless. Toby, on the other hand, is a struggler. Clumsy and awkward, his tussles, both kinaesthetically and academically, place him at a huge social disadvantage at school. Unlike his brother, whose attitude towards life and personal experience suggest that he has no reason to expect failure, Toby experiences lowered self-esteem. His diagnosis with Dyspraxia, a learning disability that impedes gross and fine motor skills, means that he becomes the recipient of a series of accommodations to assist his learning; a computer and the provision of special coaching in athletics, specifically running.
From the outset, Apel’s novel, with its strong emphasis upon sport, is guaranteed to hold strong appeal with boys in the middle years from grades 6-9. The frugal use of language (and ultimately length) will ensure that text it is an accessible choice for class and individual study. Thematically, the investigation of disability, difference and the necessary requirement for curriculum differentiation, provides an appropriate segue into a broader discussion of disability and disadvantage in society. Similarly, students will relate to other themes that include sibling rivalry, the pursuit of sporting excellence and, related to this, the struggle against self-doubt. The novel will pair quite well with other novels with the theme of sport, Cath Crowley’s The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain, or, for a closer focus on the theme of disability, Wonder by R.J Palacio, or Cecily Anne Paterson’s Invisible.
Fast Track is a highly immersive and fast paced verse novel that is guaranteed to have middle-school students cheering as they turn each page.