What the World Needs Now: More Cynthia Lord Books

Great news!  I can’t blog about my favorite middle grade books of 2012!  My role as Cybils judge is officially underway; I have to keep my ’12 opinions under wrap.  What’s so great about that?  It gives me a chance to share favorite books published before 2012– I’m so backed up!  I know Christmas is over, but I’m making a last ditch effort at my 12 Days of Books initiative.  For the Third Day of Books, I present Cynthia Lord and her 2006 novel RULES (Scholastic).

Warning:  Cindy Lord is one of my personal heroes.   That’s what’s taken me so long to write about her work.  I mean, she’s been on my list since I started Feeding the Flashlight over two years ago, but how to write about her without coming off like a complete gushing idiot?  Well I can’t, so let’s just get over it and move on.

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A more perfect cover has yet to be made for a middle grade novel.

From Amazon:  Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She’s spent years trying to teach David the rules from “a peach is not a funny-looking apple” to “keep your pants on in public”—in order to head off David’s embarrassing behaviors.
But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the next-door friend she’s always wished for, it’s her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?

First off, I know something about what it is to have a son with autism, as Cindy does.  And I know what it’s like to try your best to raise him alongside his typically-functioning sister, while also doing your best to raise her, which Cindy also knows.  It can be very frustrating for everyone.  The rewards parents of kids with autism feel for each tiny step of progress, well, those rewards are often lost on the typical sibling, who’d pretty much rather melt into the wallpaper than have to be seen with her brother anywhere, but especially anywhere that her peer group might be.  What pushes Cindy into my Circle of Heroes is that she took that thing— the setback of a devastating diagnosis, the heartbreak of any parent, the day-in, day-out challenge of autism– and turned it into RULES, the beautiful story of a girl learning to accept her brother’s differences.  When my daughter finished reading it (the first time), she said, “Mom, it’s like Cynthia Lord wrote that book just for me.”  Seriously, I get a case of wet-eye just thinking about it.

RULES feels like a gift to me, too.  Part of the challenge of having a child with significant autism is the acceptance.  It doesn’t matter if you are the parent or the sibling, the grandparent.  This kid is not going to follow the path you thought. Which means your life isn’t either.  Captain of your own destiny?  I think not.  In the story, Catherine learns to accept there are things she cannot change about her brother, and I’d wager that’s something Cindy learned from her own son, just as I have learned from mine.  Some things are bigger than us and any plans, or rules, we can make.  The fact that Cindy could share her wisdom with such clarity while living in the thick of it all is a true marvel to me.

In the end, RULES celebrates and honors families that face autism every day, bringing them into daylight for the droves of kids that may otherwise never consider what such a life is like.  For that alone, RULES’ numerous awards are more than well-earned.  I mean, forget Newbery medals– we’re talking angel’s wings here.  But, it’s also a book that encourages empathy for all sorts of differences.  It invites readers to question the importance of popularity and to define true friendship.  Right about now, doesn’t that just sound like what the world needs?

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Are you kidding me?? Another gorgeous cover for Cindy’s second novel TOUCH BLUE (Scholastic, 2010).  Indeed, another gorgeous read.

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The First Day of Books– The Partridge: ONE FOR THE MURPHYS

When I read ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin 2012), I laughed and cried, cried and laughed.  I should mention that I’m not really a crier.  When a writer can create a character that is equal parts sorrow and humor bound tightly as one– as Hunt does with Carley– it’s time to sit up and pay attention.  Somehow, through the keen eyes of our young narrator, we’re about to learn some penetrating truths.

OnefortheMurphys_low-ResONE FOR THE MURPHYS is a story about everyday heroes– adult heroes and kid heroes.  Carley is a 12-year-old girl forced into foster care when her mother is beaten to the point of hospitalization by a sleazy boyfriend.  The appalling scene is relived in Carley’s mind only in small bursts.  Hunt strikes a carefully balanced tone in its depiction, keeping it appropriate for the target audience.  While Carley struggles with deep issues of self-worth, she uses pride and humor as her coat of armor.  She’s not letting anybody in.

Enter the Murphys, a fully functional family with happy parents and kids.  Through the patience and unconditional love shown to her by Mrs. Murphy, Carley slowly comes to believe she may be worthy of such attention. In short, Carley learns to love the Murphys as she learns to love herself.  Every person matters.

THE MURPHYS is my partridge because so many people I have known use humor as their defense against painful circumstances– though perhaps less dramatic ones than Carley’s. Growing into the ability to be vulnerable, to trust, and to believe in one’s self, makes for a powerful, universal story, one Hunt masters with the perfect blend of heartache and Irish winks.  Though kids who’ve seen some misfortune like Carley’s may find particular solace in her story, this book is equally  appropriate for any child ready to see a world bigger than her own.

I can’t wait for more work by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

Toys Go Out: Timeless Theme, Original Cast

Toys Go Out taps into a classic childhood fantasy:  What do my  toys do when I’m not looking?  Winnie the Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio, Corduroy, Raggedy Ann and Andy are fixtures in the children’s lit canon for a good reason.  To the child at a certain point in development, it’s more unimaginable that the toys aren’t alive than that they are.  The “Pink Bear” my eight-year-old daughter has been dragging around since toddlerhood is much more to her than the now dishwater-gray polyester pile of flattened plush my husband and I see.

Emily Jenkins masterfully taps into that magical childhood mindspace and brings to life toys in the very same way a child does.  As promised on the cover, the book chronicles the adventures of a stuffed stingray, a “toughy little buffalo” named Lumphy, and “someone called Plastic.”  The book is organized into six stand-alone chapters.  But, reading them consecutively guarantees you fall in love with the hodgepodge cast.

Stingray is neurotic and overcompensates by being a know-it-all whose facts are questionable.  In the first chapter, when the principals are stuffed in their little girl’s backpack and don’t know where they are going, Stingray becomes convinced they are headed for the dump  (kind of like Stuart Little).  From that single assumption, she spirals to, “We’ll be tossed in a pile of old green beans and sour milk cartons…it will be full of garbage-eating sharks, and it will smell like throw-up.”  Stingray is the character who voices the fears that pop into the minds of most of us, but we’re too sensible or embarrassed to utter them.  She cracks third graders up.

Lumphy the buffalo, meanwhile, is a rugged cowboy with a vulnerable side.  He’s plagued by the fear that he’s not a real buffalo, and is given to aggression towards Stingray.  Why does Stingray get to sleep on the High Bed with the Little Girl while the rest of the toys are stuck on the floor?  In the chapter “How Lumphy Got on the Big High Bed and Lost Something Rather Good-looking,” he confronts Stingray but loses his tail as a result.

Plastic– the ball– has a total identity crisis.  What is a plastic, anyway?  Readers aren’t sure either, as she is not identified by anymore than her name.  Plastic can read, but the dictionary definition is inscrutable and the poor thing panics until the wise old bathroom towel Tuk Tuk sheds light on the situation.  “Plastic is just your name…It’s obvious, to anyone who knows anything, precisely what you are.”

Plastic:  “It is?”

Tuk Tuk: “I’ve seen balls before you, I’ll see balls after you.  A ball is what you are.  Tell me, do you bounce?”

Plastic: “Yes! I do?”

Tuk Tuk: “And do you roll?”

Plastic: “Yes!”  (She rolls around the bathroom until she smashes into the base of the toilet.)

Tuk Tuk: “And have you got front legs and back legs?”

Plastic: “Um, not exactly.”

Tuk Tuk: “And no fur whatsoever?”

Plastic: “No.”

Tuk Tuk: “That’s normal for a ball, you know.”

Plastic: “What about how I don’t have very much nose?”

Tuk Tuk: “You mean, how you don’t have any nose?”

Plastic: “Um . . . yes.”

Tuk Tuk:  “I have been around a long time.  I have never seen a ball with fur, or legs, or a nose.  You’re a ball, Plastic.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Plastic:  “I’m a ball!  A ball, ball, ball!”

Jenkins’ storytelling is tender.

Absurd.

Perfectly childlike.

If you know me at all, you know I hold nothing against potty humor or slacker middle-school boys in books.  If those things get more youthful eyes scanning text, bring ’em on.  But there is something to be said for a good, old-fashioned story well told.  Something to be cherished, like an old, gray Pink Bear.

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