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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.

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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.

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

Astronomy: Out of this World! created by Basher, written by Dan Green

19 Jul

Astronomy: Out of this World! created by Basher, written by Dan Green

Many of my students love non-fiction books with a lot of facts that they can memorize and impress people with. One of my own children loved to read the periodic table for her bedtime story. Thus, a new series of books for kids on science subjects caught my attention recently at the ALA conference. I picked up a copy of Astronomy: Out of this World! for review. The diminutive book is brightly colored and illustrated with cartoon characters depicting extraterrestrial objects, planets, and stars.  The book is laid out with text on each left-hand facing page and a cartoon character depicted on the right.  The sequence begins with the sun and commences through the solar system and moves outward into space. Each chapter is color-coded by distance from the sun with tabs along the side of the page. Starred factoids begin the text, and then the character tells its own story in the first person. The characters are depicted with emotion and personality. For example the sun is a “seething mass of anger” and the solar system is “big, happy family.” Each page of text finishes off with a few more bulleted facts. The volume includes an index, a short glossary and a pull-out poster.

Other books in the series include The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! and Rocks and Minerals: A Gem of a Book! and several more similar titles. I notice also that Basherbooks has a few non-science volumes, as well, such as Math: a Book you can Count on! and Punctuation: The Write Stuff!.

Let me just say it right out: I just don’t like these books. The cartoon characters annoy me. I am willing to admit that I just don’t get the appeal of Pokemon either, so I may be wrong (and I think that coupling these books with cute little plushy toys would probably be genius marketing, if only for the grandparent-gift-giving potential.) With the new telescopes such as the Hubble, we have amazing, gorgeous photographs of space, and I would enjoy the book so much more with photos rather than these anthropomorphized drawings.

I have yet to try them out on any kids because it is summer break, but I have a sneaking suspicion that my students will not like them much either. I suspect that children who think literally such as children on the aspergers/autism spectrum will not enjoy the cartoons or the cloying voice of the space characters. These kinds of kids, typically, do not need any gimmicks to get them to read and enjoy non-fiction books. If no children’s books are available they are just as likely to pick up an encyclopedia. Gifted kids will likely find them condescending. I don’t even think that kids who don’t generally like or read non-fiction books will be lured in by the cartoons enough to develop an interest in the text.

There is one population of kids that I think these books might well work for. Strongly visual-spacial kids for whom a lot of text is overwhelming may find the organization along the colored spectrum and bulleted facts will aid memory of important information. Some of the cartoon characters contain a good amount of clever symbolism, such as a belt with a large buckle on each rock in the asteroid belt and Neptune holding a triton in his hand.  I would use these as a jumping off point for visual kids to create their own drawings. I’d show them the best examples of the drawings in the book and challenge them to include even more symbolism to help them remember key information. Alexandra Shires Golon recommends this technique of note-taking in Visual-Spatial Learners: Differentiation Strategies for Creating a Successful Classroom published by Prufrock Press Inc.

Basherbooks are created by Basher, written by Dan Green, and published by Kingfisher. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

10 Jul

Ten-year-old Caitlin has plenty to deal with. Her older brother, Devin, was recently killed in a school shooting, her widowed father is nearly non-functional with grief—and to top it off, she has aspergers syndrome.  Devin had always explained things to her, but now she is left to figure thing out without him. Along with her trusty dictionary and a compassionate school counselor, she struggles to find closure, understand empathy and make her first friend.

Narrated by Caitlin, with all her quirks and misunderstanding of idioms, language and social situations, the book unfolds as Caitlin struggles to understand the world she finds herself in, with unintentional wit and poignant insight. In the end, Caitlin finds closure not only for herself, but leads her father, friends and community toward healing.

Caitlin and Devin both loved the movie To Kill a Mockingbird adapted from the book by Harper Lee.  Devin had nicknamed her “Scout,” after the main character because both girls were very honest, straightforward and had unusual understanding into people and situations. Throughout the book, comparisons and references are made to the movie and its lessons on empathy.

This book is geared toward students who are ages 9 to 12 and will resonate with children who are on the spectrum. It will also help typical students to understand children who think differently.  Older students will enjoy pairing Mockingbird with reading or discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  For parents and teachers, Caitlin’s clear voice will help them understand the logical, literal and deliberate thought processes typical in many children who are on the autism spectrum.  All those who read purely for pleasure will find an enjoyable book with an endearing character and thought-provoking themes.