Fuse #8

Friday, August 25, 2006

Review of the Day: RULES

When you read a bad book, the aftermath of the experience can leave you shell-shocked for quite a long period of time. Not too long ago I came across the regrettable “The Boy Who Ate Stars” by Kochka and I had a hard time recovering. Kochka, in my view, approached the subject of autism in children as a kind of wild kids-in-touch-with-their-animal side type of story. The whole project left me disappointed and wary of any books written with child audiences in mind that dealt with autism. But then I saw “RULES” and I became sorely tempted to give it a go. From its thoroughly engaging cover (you hear me publishers?) to its incredible characters, smart plotting, and all around classy style, I would recommend this book to any and every child I ran across. This is how it’s done people. This is how you write a first novel.

Now where to begin? I suppose if you asked Catherine herself she’d begin with David. Everyone else seems to after all. David’s eight and autistic. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of autistic children and the difficulties they have dealing with the world around them, but has anyone ever stopped to consider the problems their older sisters face? Sisters like Catherine who’d do anything to have a “normal” life with a “normal” little brother. Not that Catherine isn’t a good sister to David. She’s constantly creating rules for him that will, ideally, help him deal with the real world. Now a new girl has moved in next door to Catherine and her family. She would love to make Kristi a friend, but there’s always the threat that this new girl would be overly freaked out by David. And then there’s Jason, the wheelchair bound boy she knows from Jason’s occupational therapy visits. Pretty soon Catherine’s going to have to decide what kind of a friend she’s really looking for. And the answer may not be the one she has either expected or wanted.

Lord cleverly begins each chapter heading with one of the rules Catherine has concocted for David’s convenience. Of course, not all the rules apply to David. Some of them are the kids of things Catherine has come up with to get by in life. For example there’s, “If you don’t want to do something, say, ‘Hmmm. I’ll think about it’ and maybe the asker will forget the whole bad idea”. My favorite chapter heading? The one that completely does away with any pretense that these rules are actually for David. In short, “Pantless brothers are not my problem”. Nuff said.

One of the many things I loved about this book was how Lord chose to present David. I am so sick of the autistic/handicapped/mentally challenged children’s book character that has to act out the standard saintly two-dimensional role too long carved out in literature. David is a real kid. Yeah, he has autism. Sure. But he also cares deeply for his sister, even to the point where he can engage in a little fishtank-related mischief on the side. Catherine has a rule that there should be no toys in the fish tank. Yet turn around for half a second and there goes David tossing a Barbie or other toy in the briny depths. Younger brother annoyances pure and simple. And Catherine, for her part, is just as real a kid. Do you think she wants to constantly hang out with and babysit her little brother when she’d rather be out getting a new best friend? Heck no! Her attitude towards her little brother is incredibly realistic. On the one hand she’d love it if, “someone would invent a pill so David’d wake up one morning without autism”. But then she’s really a good sister who willingly tags along to her brother’s occupational therapy sessions.

Some people I’ve discussed “RULES” with were a little put out that Lord never comes and out says why Jason is the way he is. He sound paraplegic to me, but that’s just a guess. Also, it was very interesting how Lord chose to have Catherine want desperately to have Kristi as a friend, even though her real best friend would be back at the end of the summer. Why didn’t the book make Catherine one hundred percent friendless? Would that have made her seem too desperate or pandering for attention? Hard to say.

In the end, the real key to the charm of “RULES” is the book’s accessibility. This is a fun read. A fun, not too long, not too drawn out read. It doesn’t preach and it doesn’t simplify. What it does do is present an original story from a unique perspective. I would be intrigued to hear what real siblings of autistic children think of Lord’s work. One of the rare well-written works of literature for young 'uns that kids may actually want to read and reread. In the same class as, “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key”.

Notes On the Cover: Aw yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s see just how well it fulfills a cover’s goal, shall we? Does it have anything to do with the plot? Yes! Remember, David is always putting toys in the fish tank in spite of the rule that says not to do so. How are the colors? Vibrant and eye-popping. Not a sepia-toned smear in sight. Most importantly, will this cover engage kids? I dunno. I can ask them if you like. But for my part, if I were ten once again and I saw this cover sitting on a shelf, I don’t think I could prevent my grubby little hands from ah-grabbin’ this beautiful little book. I hope millions of kid have the same reaction over and over again. Top notch work, Kristina Albertson (who also did the cover for Sam I Am) Well done too to, Scholastic! So far you guys are winning my Best Cover Art By a Publisher of 2006 Award. Keep it up.

Check out Cynthia Lord's website and blog for more info.


At 1:53 AM , Blogger Saints and Spinners said...

When this book showed up for me at the library, I thought you had recommended it, and then realized it was from Jen Robinson's book page. As the older sister of a brother who had all sorts of developmental issues, I appreciated the nuances of both Catherine's and David's character. I appreciated the humor. And yeah, I appreciated the poignancy, too. I think I might recommend the book to someone who enjoyed Al Capone Does My Shirts. The writing styles are different, but some of the issues are presented in similar ways.

At 8:02 AM , Blogger slatts said...

Nice review! I couldn't agree with you more. I love the book!

At 9:29 AM , Blogger Agyw said...

I concur! So many rules, so little time-- my favorites (paraphrased, because it's been a while since I've read it):

If you look at something long enough it becomes beautiful.


Not everything has to be useful to have meaning.


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