Liane Shaw, a former special-education resource teacher, has never shied away from tough topics. Her previous novels have tackled foster care (Fostergirls), physical and emotional limitations (The Color of Silence), and autism spectrum disorder (Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell). In Caterpillars Can’t Swim, she examines the prejudices people exert on those who are different – whether those differences are perceived or real – and crafts a plot that ensures understanding and acceptance.
Though 16-year-old Ryan Malloy is often treated differently in his small town due to his cerebral palsy and use of a wheelchair, everything is right with the world when he is swimming. Because he’s up early even on days when he doesn’t have swim practice, Ryan witnesses someone dancing on the shore and then disappearing beneath the surface of the local river. Jeopardizing his own life and injuring himself in the process, Ryan throws himself off a bridge and saves his schoolmate, Jack Pedersen, from drowning.
In the aftermath, small-town gossip about Jack’s sexuality and the bullying he endures brings Ryan to Jack’s defence repeatedly, and the two develop a clumsy friendship. Although Ryan’s best friend, Cody, is somewhat awkward about Jack – and Ryan’s new association with him – the three boys embark on a summer trip to a nearby ComicCon. Amid the fantasy realms celebrated in cosplay and panels, the trio explore their own situations, meeting new people and revealing much about their fears, attitudes, and confusions, exposing the hurts, judgments, and burdens they all carry. Whether their foray outside their small town and their relationships with each other are enough to make a positive difference in their lives is only evident after a stunning climax involving rejection, desperation, and intervention.
By casting Ryan, whose cerebral palsy defines him for so many, in the role of hero, Shaw changes up the expected narrative. Each of the boys faces challenges, but Shaw makes it clear that, like the caterpillar, they are all engaged in one stage of a metamorphosis.