An Amazing Story of a Girl Finding her Voice

21 Aug

Carly is amazing girl with autism, who had no voice until she learned to type. She was featured on 20/20 recently. There is a link to the story on Carly’s blog that is very interesting. http://carlysvoice.com/ Her perspective on what she thinks and feels is very insightful.

Parenting Transgender kids

14 Aug

After reading and reviewing I am J by Cris Beam, a story about a transgendered teen, I was deeply touched and saddened by his plight. I know that J’s experience is not uncommon. He faced rejection, homelessness, and danger when he revealed his true self.

I think that of all the GBLT variations, this one may be the hardest for a parent to deal with. As a parent of two queer kids, I know something of the thought redirection that takes place when a parent realizes that their child is not going to follow the dream path that we have for them. In my case, I had mostly guessed, before I knew for sure, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. My oldest told me ten years ago and, although I was okay with it, I remember wishing, at least a little bit, that things could be different. With my youngest, who came out this summer, I can’t imagine wishing him to be anyone other than who he is. (and I wouldn’t change my daughter anymore either.)  But having a trans kid would be harder, I think. As a parent, I think  my kids are perfect. It is a mom thing.  So the idea that something is so wrong with the body that I gave them that they need to change and be someone else would rock me. I’d accept and I would support them, and in the end, I’d be okay, but it would be a difficult thing and I would need to really grow a lot in the process.

I read with interest this inspiring  essay about a dad with a twelve year old transgendered daughter. (http://tinyurl.com/2w2qhj8)

“My 12 year old transgender daughter is my mentor. It’s tough to put into words what a profound impact this small person has had in changing my core values, but since the young age of five, she has unknowingly encouraged me to open my eyes and heart to new ideas. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve watched her experience severe emotional pain and physical frustration, but thanks to support and guidance, I’ve watched as she’s become a confident, happy and healthy child. And as she changed, I changed too.”

What a beautiful story and what a great dad.  He has lucky kids.

I am happy that at least some parents and teachers are becoming more educated about these issues, which allow early intervention, counseling, and medical care.  Another story about this remarkable girl and her family can be found at (http://tinyurl.com/28ox2cq )

I am J by Cris Beam

10 Aug

J, AKA Jeni is a 17 year-old transgendered teen. The writing style of  referring to J as “he” really put me into the mindset of the character. When an adult or teen would refer to him as a girl or call him by the name of Jeni, I was startled and disoriented, much the same as I expect that J felt in the story.

J has lived in an ambiguous life, wearing hats and clothing that hide his body.  Many people think he is a lesbian. He is afraid (and for very good reason it turns out) to reveal who he really is to his family and friends. When he becomes determined to live his life as a man, he finds some allies and unexpected friends who help him. He also finds that his parents are not ready to accept him for who he is.  He is forced to do a lot of educating people about being transgender, what is it and also what it isn’t.

I really loved this book. I wanted to adopt J and comfort him and tell him everything would be all right—even though I knew that his life would not be an easy one. I wanted to shake his parents—and comfort them too.  They handled his coming out badly, but I don’t think that they had the capacity or knowledge to understand. I felt sorry for them that their ignorance, prejudice and confusion got in the way of loving and supporting their child.

I recommend this book to all adults and teens, whether they are touched by GLBT issues or not, because it is a subject we need to understand and be aware of so that kids like J have support, love and acceptance.  It is also a poignant story of being true to self that all readers can relate to and learn from.

Recommended for ages 15 and up. Published by Little, Brown and Company Reviewed from an Advanced Reading Copy. Publication date: March 2011

Another view of Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

7 Aug

While I was nosing around looking at what other reviewers wrote about Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin, I came upon a review by Ulyyf “Connie” on Amazon reviews (http://tinyurl.com/256fekc) Connie raises a good point; books written by neurotypical people about people with autism run a huge risk of being inaccurate and/or insensitive to people with autism

Many authors who write characters with autism have some real life experience with  ASDs. Kathryn Erskine, author of Mockingbird, (http://wp.me/sYHNm-18) has a child with ASD and Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time taught students with ASD.  I think that  for those of us who  work and live with people on the spectrum, caution should be taken when reading anything written about ASDs or purporting to be from the point of view of an autistic character.  It is probably not a bad idea to keep in mind that even a book written by a person on the spectrum speaks only for that particular person and not for the whole population. In my experience, people with autism spectrum disorders, while sharing some common characteristics in widely varying degrees, come in all flavors and sizes–just like everyone else.

Connie brings up several interesting points in her review:

“Well, here’s my big problem. I’m concerned that people are going to read this book, they’re going to read that Dog in the Nighttime book, and they’re going to say “Autism, if it doesn’t make you like Rain Man or Susan in that BSC book then it makes you like those asocial losers”.

It is true that a new stereotype has emerged,  surrounding ASDs. Connie says it well. We do need to use caution and common sense and not paint all people with ASDs with one brush. In addition, I recommend having conversations regarding possible stereotypes and similarities.  If there is someone with aspergers in your life–ask if they agree with the portrayal of ASDs in a book.

“This book claims to be in the mind of an autistic boy. I say claims to be because, after reading the author’s website and watching her video on the book, I am certain that the author is not, herself, on the spectrum. So what this book really is a book about a NT trying to pretend to be realistically autistic enough to write a book from the perspective of an autistic boy. A daunting task to be sure, and I start to ask myself – why? Why aren’t there more books by autistic authors? It’s not that there are no autistic authors at all – off the top of my head I can count seven or eight, and I know there are many more. If anybody is qualified to say what life is like as an autistic individual, surely it’s somebody who actually knows? “

Connie has made me commit to reading more books written by authors on the spectrum.  Because I work with these students every day, I sincerely want to understand, as best I can. I found a nice list of autobiographical books and non-autobiographical books written by people on the spectrum (http://tinyurl.com/342q8eh) . I also found Lindsay’s blog to be really interesting and will be reading it regularly from now on.

I brought up a similar subject in another blog post  (http://wp.me/pYHNm-19) regarding straight writers writing from a GLBT point of view.   I hope that as more and more traditionally marginalized authors write from their own point of view that it will inform those of us who want to understand better.  I also will continue to read and enjoy books that are well-written, by anyone who chooses to tackle difficult topics and various points of view.

Connie also writes:

“In addition to the number of books that purport to be written from an autistic perspective, there are a number of books with main characters who – if you know what you’re looking at – are almost *certainly* autistic, but the word is never mentioned.
As a rule, this latter category of books tends to be better. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the focus is on the story rather than the message? “

I have often found the same thing to be true.  When my son was reading An Abundance of Katherines by John Green for his summer reading, he brought the book to me and told me I needed to read it because the kid in it looked like a kid with aspergers syndrome.  The book was engaging and interesting, in its own right, and the character of Colin is a multi-dimensional character, who also shows a lot of characteristics of a person on the spectrum. Connie mentions The Lemonade War by Jaqueline Davies and Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell out of the Tree by Lauren Tarshis as books which have characters who are probably on the spectrum, but with no mention of ASDs. in the books.  I’ve put both on my to-read list.

Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

3 Aug

Jason considers himself to be atypical, but in many ways, he is like a lot of kids his age.  The story is a fairly simple one with no unusual twists or amazing adventures, just (dare I say?) typical sixth grade confusion and social life and crushes. Jason, a sixth grade boy with aspergers syndrome, struggles in school to fit in and make friends. He enjoys writing and posting his stories on an internet writing site called Storyboard and makes a friend (possibly a girlfriend?) online. When his parents surprise him with a trip to the Storyboard convention, Jason must face his terror of meeting his online friend in person.  A secondary theme is his relationship with his mother, who is sad and confused by his autism. As they travel together to the convention she learns to depend on his strengths to help her cope with her own traveling anxieties.

As an adult reader, I didn’t find the storyline to be particularly exciting, though I can see that for preteen kids for whom just fitting in and making friends is the main dilemma in life; it might be a perfect book. For an engaging story with a main character with autism spectrum disorder, I enjoyed reading Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (http://wp.me/sYHNm-18) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon much more.

I did enjoy how the author attempted to capture the voice and thought processes of Jason.  This is the most interesting part of the book for me. As a teacher, I could see my students in many of the situations that caused Jason to behave in seemingly inexplicable ways. It was a good reminder to me that what I see on the surface does not give the whole picture. My students may not be thinking the same things that Jason is thinking in a given situation, but they are thinking something that is very logical to them and have perfectly explicable explanations for their behavior.

I would recommend this book for adults who work with or live with kids with aspergers syndrome and for all tween kids (on the spectrum and not.) I think it would be a great way for a parent or teacher to begin a conversation with a child about differences in thought processes and communication styles. It might give a child with aspergers the language to discuss their own thought processes by comparing and contrasting them with Jason’s.  I’d really enjoy a conversation with someone on the spectrum about the authenticity of Jason’s voice.  I’d like to ask: “Does this seem real to you?” and “Does this ring true to your experience?”

Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin is recommended for ages 9-12 and is published by Simon and Schuster. I particularly enjoyed the cover and page illustration on the hardcover edition, which cleverly depicted Jason’s thoughts.

Killing two Birds with one Stone

1 Aug

One of the perks of being a teacher is summer vacation.  I had a killer year, with a new full-time teaching job at a new school, five graduate classes, and single parenthood with teenage kids. Those people close to me know that I was pretty strung out by the time school got out.  Hence, I had two official goals for the summer: learn to relax and to read for pleasure again.

In order to learn to relax, I intended to get back to my yoga and practice meditation. I’ve tried meditating before and, frankly, I suck at it.  I have a brain that never stops jabbering to me. I twitch, I itch and before I even know it, I am composing my “To Do” list in my head. With practice, I’ve gotten better, but it still is a lot of work and doesn’t really feel like it’s helping me relax.  The yoga has been more successful than the meditation, but still, I get sore muscles, I get shaky, and my breathing is ragged. I am not giving up on the idea of yoga and meditation—I still hope to someday become a competent mediator—but by far the most successful of my goals has been the reading one.

Imagine my amusement when I ran onto this article: http://tinyurl.com/ckm8s4 a few weeks ago.  Yeah, it is one of those “well, duh.” moments, but apparently, reading is a very good method of relaxing.  In a study commissioned by a chocolate company for an advertising campaign, just six minutes of reading lowered heart rate and muscle tension to levels lower than before the study began. Reading was more successful at helping subjects relax than listening to music, going for a walk or having a cup of tea. According to Dr. David Lewis, who conducted the study cited in the article:

“It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination. This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

Even without all the other benefits of reading, this makes reading a valuable activity for adults and for kids. Stress and anxiety disorders are a big problem for kids with disabilities and for some of them, slowing down is nearly impossible. Reading something interesting gives just enough mental stimulation to help those of us with active minds slow down and relax.

So there you have it, I killed two birds with one (unintentional) stone. Now pass the chocolate.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

30 Jul

I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly sad this book would make me. I’d read several reviews that indicated that it was intense at times, as well as funny, but I didn’t anticipate the extent to which it would disturb me.  I listened to the audio version read by the author, which didn’t help matters. Jack Gantos did a great job of making me believe that Joey was a real kid with very real ADHD. It alternately made me laugh out loud…and then caught me by surprise and ripped my heart out.

There were hysterically funny moments in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Mostly, though, I felt sad and horrified while listening to Joey’s thoughts. He wanted so much to make good choices, but his mind and his body was so far outside of his own control that he was unable to restrain himself from being impulsive. He’d been abandoned and neglected and abused and been made to feel stupid and bad.  Even when Joey had great intentions and was trying so hard to follow through, he managed to keep getting into more and more trouble. If it had been a movie, I think I would have had to cover my eyes to keep from seeing what was going to happen next.  I could see exactly where the story was going to go and I had no way to yell: “Stop! Don’t do it!”

There were times when Joey looked awfully familiar. I’ve had students like Joey. They are difficult and frustrating and exasperating—and I’ve loved them. I felt an affinity with his teachers who keep trying to help Joey. I felt sad when they failed, and hopeful when Joey got on a new medication that seemed to be helping him, despite his crazy, dysfunctional family. I felt compassion for his mother, who despite her own problems wanted the best for Joey and was willing to make her own changes to help him.

Although it made me sad, I highly recommend this book to parents, teachers and kids.  Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is the first book in a trilogy which includes Joey Pigza Loses Control and What would Joey Do? I’ve put them on my “to read” list, but I may need to steel myself for them—and buy more Kleenex.  I highly recommend the unabridged audio version read by the author, who is not only a gifted author but also a terrific reader.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is a Newbery Honor Book and is recommended for ages 9-12 (though sensitive kids may need adult guidance and support.) It is published by Harper Collins.

Pondering on GLBT Literature

28 Jul

GLBT themes and characters are hot in teen literature right now and this is something that I welcome. As I posted in my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (http://wp.me/pYHNm-11) I think it is important for gender variant teens to have role models that they can identify with. This issue hits close to home. I have children and friends who are GLBT and I want them live in a world that accepts them, and the unique and wonderful contributions they bring to it.  I want them to be safe and feel loved. For those of us who are straight, I believe that it is important to read books that expand our understanding and empathy.

I hesitated with writing my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson for several weeks, because I wanted to make sure that I handled the subject with grace and sensitivity.  Clearly, homosexuality, and other gender variations, do not fit under the under the “disability” definition of exceptionality, however, I have found that many of the GLBT teens I have known are extremely gifted and talented.  By my more loose definition of “Twice Exceptional” (http://wp.me/pYHNm-B) I could argue that being GLBT adds another layer of complexity to a gifted person that deserves attention and makes it fit well into the theme of my blog. (Not that I have any problem posting about any book that I like, but I wanted to be clear of its place here.) In my experience, teens who are gifted tend to think more deeply than the average teen, and thus, they tend to be  articulate and thoughtful about their identities because they have needed to be.  It seems that for these kinds of kids, literature that speaks to them is even more important to their well being than it is to average kids.

A recent suicide of a young, gay man in my circle of community struck me very hard.  (http://usu-shaft.com/2010/homophobia-claims-another-life/) I didn’t know him, but I know many like him, with the same background, and I hurt for him, and them, and want, somehow, to speak out against the bigotry and intolerance that is hurting people.  I worry that I will alienate family and friends who believe differently than I do. But, feel it is more important to stand up for what is right and stand by those I love–a lesson that I was reminded of in Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

In addition, I don’t want to word anything in a manner that might offend my GLBT friends or family. Even the words I use seem loaded and dangerous at times. I’ve stuck with GLBT and “gender variant” in my writings even though they often feel awkward and repetitive.  I had a discussion the other day with my son who prefers to use the term “Queer” but that feels to me a bit like a white person using the “N” word. I just don’t feel comfortable using it.  And so, writing this post has taken longer than most. I have written and rewritten a number of times, trying to express my feelings the best way I can.

My son and I also talked about a recent discussion I saw on another blog that I read:  The Right Amount of Gay? (http://tinyurl.com/2vmput7) The Lambda Literary Foundation has made the decision to only give their yearly award for LGBT books to LGBT-identified authors. As a straight supporter of gay rights, I understand the sentiment. However, I am troubled by the idea that a writer can only write about his or her own identity. This begs the question: Can adults write from a teen point of view or can a woman write from a man’s point of view? My opinion is that the purpose and talent of writing is the convincingly write a character that isn’t your own.  My son felt much the same as I did on the issue.

My readings and ponderings of late have been a good jumping off point for discussion with my son, and maybe, that is the value of GLBT literature for teens. Maybe, GLBT literature will provide a place for gay and straight youth, adults and parents to meet and find understanding and compassion.  We can use it.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

28 Jul

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story of two teenage boys with the same name, growing up and figuring things out in the suburbs of Chicago. Chapters alternate between the two Wills. At first this juxtaposition was a bit confusing to me, but once I caught on to the different narration styles of the two Wills, I found the back-and-forth style interesting and engaging.

Up until now, The original Will Grayson’s two simple rules (1. Don’t care too much and 2. Shut up.) have worked well for keeping his life uncomplicated.  His long–time friendship with an extremely large, fabulous and way “out” best friend named “Tiny” and a developing crush on “Possibly Gay Jane” threaten his anonymous existence.  The other Will Grayson (OWG) has been hiding that he is gay from his best friend, Maura, and his mom, while carrying on an internet relationship with a boy named Isaac.  When OWG makes a date to meet Isaac in Chicago, the paths of the two Wills collide.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a story of friendship and having the courage to stand by friends when the going gets tough. It is a story that has been told before, but the added mixture of gay and straight friends brings another dimension to the story.  I am heartened and relieved to see popular YA writers tackling books with GLBT themes and characters.    I believe it is important to the health and well-being of gender variant teens to have characters that they can identify with and vital for straight kids (and adults) to have the opportunity to see the world from a different point of view.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is published by Dutton Juvenile and is appropriate for YA readers.

The Power of Books

24 Jul

I love books. I like seeing them lined up on my shelves. I like piles of them by my bedside, kitchen table, and toilet tank. I like the way they feel in my hands. I even like how they smell. I love the worlds they allow me to travel to and I love curling up with a good book and getting lost in it. I own a lot of books.

A few weeks ago, I came across this article http://tinyurl.com/2fw6ql2 about how the number of books a parent owns is directly correlated to a child’s academic achievement. It makes sense that if we place value on something, our children will as well. Many years ago, I read an article about a study of children with illiterate, but motivated parents. The parents spent time each day, holding a book and turning the pages in the presence of the children. The children’s reading skills improved dramatically.  I wish I had saved a copy of that study.

I know a young, single mother with three young children who is currently back in school trying to begin a career of her own. Money is tight and family support is short, but each month, when Maria shops at the thrift store for clothing and household needs, she allows her kids one very special treat each. At the end of the visit, each kid gets to pick out one book. She reports that her children are the only ones in her extended family who have not been identified for needing special education services.

It appears that placing value on books and the modeling of reading behaviors is very important to motivate and inspire a love of reading in kids. Reading to them and sharing a love of books adds another layer of incentive for students to become good readers.

This all got me wondering—and I do not know the answer—what effect will there be if (or when) we go to a completely digital library on individual reading devices? Will children even know that their parents own and value books? Will they be able to differentiate between reading, aimless surfing, playing video games or texting?  Will a child feel a sense of excitement and ownership at owning a special book? I understand the appeal of ebooks—many books, less space, less paper, portability, No  dusting and room to get out of my bed without tripping over the piles, to name a few advantages.  I wonder, though, what we will lose in the process?