Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rules: The Sweet, Simple Novel That Owns My Heart

(Image from Cynthia Lord's official website)

If you make a mess, clean it up.

Knock before entering someone's bedroom.

Don't talk with your mouth full.

Take off your shoes when you come inside the house.

All families have rules. Catherine's does, too. Only they don't necessarily apply to her younger brother, David. He has his own rules to follow:

It's fine to hug Mom, but not the clerk at the video store.

Take your shoes off at the doctor, but at the dentist leave them on.

If someone is holding something you want, ask if you can have a turn.

Keep your pants on! Unless Mom, Dad, or the doctor tells you to take them off!

Most kids David's age just know what to do in these situations. Not David. His autism makes him act differently than other people, something Catherine knows better than anyone. She's seen him freak out over the tiniest issues, things a "normal" kid wouldn't even notice, let alone care about. She's watched his odd behavior attract stares, giggles and cruel teasing from other children. She's comforted him, defended him, tried to teach him about appropriate reactions. She's let him hog their parents' attention, sat patiently through hours of his therapy appointments and missed out on the kinds of trips and vacations kids with regular families go on all the time. Catherine wishes fervently that there were no such thing as autism. Sometimes, she even wishes there was no such thing as David.

When 12-year-old Kristi Peterson moves in next door, Catherine's thrilled. She's always wanted someone in the neighborhood her age to hang out with. It's clear, though, that Kristi's the type of girl who's destined to be popular; if Catherine wants to win her over as a BFF, she'll have to act fast. There's only one problem: David. How can she impress Kristi when he's always hanging around acting so ... different? Real friends understand, that's what Catherine's mother always says. But how can anyone get David? She doesn't even get David most of the time.

Catherine's surprised when she makes another new friend, this one even more unexpected than the last. Jason Morehouse is funny, friendly and seems to enjoy her company, but when Kristi suggests inviting him to the community dance, Catherine hesitates. What Kristi doesn't know is that Jason's confined to a wheelchair and he's only able to speak by pointing to words in his communication book. Catherine gets enough stares when she's with David - what will happen if she's seen with Jason?

Sorting through all the feelings that war in her heart - resentment toward her parents who always put David's needs before hers; guilt over her sometimes hateful feelings about her brother; embarrassment over her "irregular" family; and, most of all, shame for all her horrible thoughts - Catherine's forced to face grim truths about herself. Does she crave Kristi's friendship enough to betray her family? Her wheelchair-bound friend? How far will she go to get a normal life? And what's normal anyway?

As much as I love Cynthia Lord's sophomore novel (Touch Blue), it's her debut that really owns my heart. Rules is a rare kind of story, one that offers truth without bitterness, humor without mockery, and sweetness without sentimentality. Catherine's voice rings with such authenticity that her brother's disability becomes instantly personal and intensely relatable. It's impossible not to feel her heartbreak, not to root for her success. So comfortable is Lord in the world she's created for Catherine and David that their story flows along with a natural ease that just feels right. Middle grade books rarely touch me the way this one did, but Rules grabbed me from the first sentence and hasn't let go yet. If you only have time to squeeze in one more book this year, make it this one.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko; also reminded me a little of Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for content more suited for kids over the age of 8

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

6 comments:

  1. This sounds like something my husband might like. I'll send him the link!

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  2. You summed this up so well. My daughter read this last year and loved it too! She has worked with autistic kids for 2 years now (in addition to her fulltime job) and felt that this book was perfect!! Thanks for sharing such a well written review. As always, your reviews say it so much better than my little heart can.

    Merry Christmas, you little book-angel, you!

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  3. I loved this book- great review!

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  4. This sounds exactly like my kind of book. I'll have to check it out.

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  5. I say AMEN to your review. Just finished this book and loved it!

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