Monday, October 5, 2009

Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Jason loves to write, in fact, he loves to write so much that he is a member of a website where both original and fan-fiction stories are posted. In real life, Jason doesn’t have many friends – kids tend to either stay away or belittle him for his differences, but on Storyboard his stories are attracting positive attention. And attention from one person in particular, a girl. When Jason gets the opportunity to attend a Storyboard Conference, he’s excited, that is until he finds out that Rebecca – his online friend – will be attending the conference as well.

I should preface this review by mentioning that I have a hard time reading books with autistic characters as the main protagonist - mainly because I find their voices are so similar. Happily, I found that while there were similarities (and let’s face it there has to be some – Autism has some pretty standard symptoms), Baskin manages to bring a fresh eye to the story. In fact, there was little to no reliance on the autistic disconnect for humor – which surprised me (and made this story stand out). Instead, Jason our autistic narrator is portrayed very seriously with a touch of sadness.

Truthfully, this book is really sad and it would be a hard-hearted person who doesn’t finish this book with sympathy for Jason. He knows and understands exactly what people think of him, he just can’t fight his disorder to act in ways that he knows they want him to. It was rather heartbreaking. Who wouldn't feel sad for a boy who longs for a girlfriend, but understands that his differences might make this hard to achieve?

I thought the author did a very good job showing how an autistic person fits within their community and especially their family. Realistically, people have a variety of reactions – it is not all unconditional love and acceptance all the time. Jason’s mom, especially, has a hard time understanding that this isn’t something you can fix. You can’t just force Jason to begin to react to situations in a ‘normal’ way. And it is a difficult journey for her, she feels unloved, she feels anger, frustration, sadness, probably guilt. It is accompanying him to the storyboard conference that begins the process of acceptance – something Jason’s father and brother have already achieved.

What I didn’t get was an exact idea of how well Jason functions. It would seem that he is somewhat high functioning since he is in a ‘regular’ classroom, but then in other respects he seems as though he can’t interact well at all (I’m thinking of the scene in the library where he can’t respond to the librarian to let her know what he wants). Online he is fluent and writes beautiful well-constructed stories, but in person he can’t seem to communicate (he often echoes the last few words of what the other person says to let them know he is listening).

I did appreciate the way in which what Jason tells us about the writing process mirrors what is going on with his own story and how the stories he writes give the reader greater understanding of Jason’s experiences. I even enjoyed Bennu’s story despite the obvious messages of acceptance.

I think, this book, more than other books with autistic protagonists, goes farther in terms of showing what it is actually like to be autistic (as in those with autism are not just the kooky oddball who can solve mysteries because of their unique worldview). Instead this book shows you the rich interior life of someone you may have thought doesn’t have one because you can’t get past their hand-flaps. Baskin takes a kid and makes him a sympathetic and relatable character. A valuable thing indeed.

Book Source: Library Copy

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