Sunday, December 20, 2015

Rules by Cynthia Lord

by Cynthia Lord

Left to herself, my ten year old voracious reader may not reach for this book, because, let's face it, "Rules" are not exciting.

However, having read it myself, I wanted her to read it as well. I wanted to know if the book resonated with her, if anything touched her, if anything seemed incongruous to her in any way.

So, rather than wait for her to pick it up, I decided to read it aloud to her, a few chapters at a time. I believe that reading aloud is wonderful for any age, even for adults. Anyway, thus began this interesting journey of discovery together.

Twelve-year-old Catherine is the main character. The story is all about Catherine and her growing pains, wanting to fit in and be accepted for who she is.

However, Catherine has an autistic brother and so naturally, her life is inseparably intertwined with his. Add in a pair of well-meaning, well-intentioned parents who are doing the best they can, plus a new neighbor and potential friend, and a non-verbal teen in a wheelchair, the story is bound to get interesting.

Summer vacation has just begun. Catherine goes with her mom for her eight-year-old brother David's weekly Occupational Therapy session. That's where she meets 14-year old Jason. Her growing friendship with Jason confuses and rattles her. Through it all, Jason comes out as independent and strong and in the end, Catherine does realize that she truly values his friendship even if she feels quite awkward around him. We follow Catherine through this summer vacation where she discovers a little about herself and learns to accept herself, flaws and all.

Catherine is fiercely protective of her brother; she defends him from insults and taunts by others. It grates her when people stare at David. Her love for her brother is never in question. But, being a "normal" child, Catherine also resents David's special needs. She desperately wants a "normal" brother, one who would know to keep his pants on in public, one who knows not to open cellar doors in other people's houses, one who wouldn't scream or throw a fit if dad is a little late to take him to the video store, in short, one who would not embarrass her so much.

Older sisters with a younger brother, with special needs or otherwise, can easily identify with Catherine being called to 'baby-sit' her brother often when she would much rather do her own thing. Catherine's annoyance leads to her making up a list of "Rules" that David can follow to ensure appropriate behavior. Little brothers can be quite challenging to sensitive older sisters and this is the part that resonated most with the resident ten year old.

As it is written from Catherine's point of view, her parents do come across as a bit one-dimensional, but it is obvious that they are average working parents trying to make the best of each day.

The author states that she has an autistic son, and that her daughter was the inspiration for Catherine. Which makes many of the details realistic, reasonable, and believable.

While the book has two major characters who are disabled, the book is not about disability or disabled persons. How Catherine navigates her world, a world that is complex enough to stress her out, is what the book unfolds.

One objection that usually comes up about this book is that Catherine wishes her brother would be "normal" somehow; whereas, clearly he is who he is and she must accept him as such. David is somehow not humanized as much as Jason is in the story. Catherine finds herself uncomfortable around both of them, but Jason stands out as a well-developed character, whereas all we know about David is what Catherine tells us through her interactions.

However, as my ten year old pointed out, there is nothing wrong with Catherine wishing for her brother to be like who she wants him to be, however she defines "normal"... She just wishes she can connect with him in a deeper way and share sibling love and the joys of growing up together. As it is, she just barely manages her own pre-teen angst and to have to constantly defend and protect David can be draining for her.

The book definitely affected the ten year old, possibly in ways she is not be able to articulate at this time. Lives of all the Davids and Jasons out there is sure to get her thinking deeply about how people learn to live with disabilities in our world, and how the people around them can learn to treat them with dignity and respect.

The author does a wonderful job of balancing Catherine's needs and her expectations. Catherine is just a young girl, not a saint; she just has too much to process around her, and that overwhelms her; she is basically a loving, kind, and down-to-earth kid.

[image source: Author Cynthia Lord website]

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