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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

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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.

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.

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon

23 Jul

Young  Zora is a good friend and confidant to the narrator, a young girl named Carrie. Zora is a gifted and imaginative storyteller whose curiosity and naivety lead Zora, and her friends on adventures that have the potential of ripping apart their racially complicated community. This fictional story is based on the life and short stories of Zora Neale Hurston and combines history, folklore and imagination in an engaging tale. As I began reading, I half expected this story to be a reworking of The Boy who Cried Wolf, with the children learning their lessons about the dangers of making up stories. The book surprised and delighted me; Zora’s imagination wasn’t so far off from the eccentric realities of her community and times.

Zora and Me is a book that is just meant for reading aloud. As I read, I often stopped to re-read a paragraph aloud to myself. The language rolls off the tongue smoothly and is reminiscent of Hurston’s own writings, but accessible to a younger audience.   This will be a terrific book to share with students when teaching about African-American history, culture and accomplishments. I like that the young protagonist is a smart, funny and imaginative African-American female—and I like it even more that she was a real person, and an accomplished and acclaimed writer.   Many passages from this book would work very well in writing lessons when talking about using voice in writing.  For parents and teachers, this book would be a nice book to read and compare with To Kill a Mockingbird.  (see my review at http://wp.me/pYHNm-x)

Zora and Me is published by Candlewick Press. This review is based on the Advanced Reading Copy. Recommended for ages 10 and up. The finished book will include a short biography of Zora Neale Hurston, an annotated bibliography of her works and a timeline of her life. This book is the only book not written by Hurston herself, which has been approved by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust