Monday, August 16, 2010

Summer Blog Reruns: Rules by Cynthia Lord

This week, I'm working hard on a revision of my novel, so I'm going to take a break and do a few blog reruns. In honor of Cynthia Lord's new book Touch Blue coming out this month, here is a rerun about her first book.

Rules by Cynthia Lord: Originally posted June 11, 2007

I know that I'm behind the times. It's been well over a year since Cynthia Lord's book Rules came out, and about six months since it received the American Library Association's prestigious Newbery Honor Award for her "distinguished contribution to American literature for children." My favorite kidlit bloggers published their thoughtful, insightful reviews ages ago. And I just read the book this weekend.

Rules, simply put, is a story of a young girl trying to find her place in family, friendships, and life, while also figuring out how to deal with her younger brother's autism and all the unusual pressure and demand that condition can put on a family. This may not sound like light reading, but Cynthia Lord's humor and honesty and real, three-dimensional characters make the chapters fly by and you hardly want to put the book down. (As evidenced by this Sunday morning when my husband said, "Let's make pancakes!"...which is usually enough to make me drop whatever I'm doing and immediately dash for the kitchen...and instead I mumbled absently, "Mmmm...maybe after I finish this chapter. Or the next.")

I don't want to say much because you really should just read it, but here is one of the details I loved most about this book:

Catherine, the main character, is constantly writing rules for her brother, David, so "at least he'll know how the world works, and I won't have to keep explaining." Some of Catherine's life rules include:

  • If someone says "hi," you say "hi" back.
  • Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.
  • No toys in the fish tank.
  • Pantless brothers are not my problem.
While some of these rules are written out of adolescent frustration, there are some rules that are incredibly poignant and show a real, deep love. For instance, David often has trouble finding words to express himself, so Catherine writes him these two rules:
  • If you don't have the words you need, borrow someone else's.
  • If you need to borrow words, Arnold Lobel wrote some good ones.
So throughout the book, Catherine and David, quote to each other from Andrew Lobel's Frog and Toad books, almost like a secret language between brother and sister.
"Dad's still coming," I say. "Late doesn't mean not coming."

But those words don't help. So I reach over, wipe away his tear with the side of my thumb, and say the only words I know will calm him: "'Frog, you are looking quite green.'"

David sniffles. "'But I always look green,' said Frog. 'I am a frog.'"
This is what makes the book so lovely. The relationships. The very real, honest quality of Catherine's interactions with her brother, her father, the new girl next door, the boy she meets in the waiting room of David's occupational therapy appointments. This is not a drama about how difficult it is to live with autism. This is a book about growing up. About families. And as Cynthia Lord (who lives in Maine!) wrote on her website (totally worth checking out) in answer to a 5th grader's question about why she chose to write about autism:
Life is long and challenges come into every family, even if you don’t start life with them. RULES is about accepting there is value in everything, even in imperfection. Sometimes things can’t be changed, but you can change your feelings about them.
According to Booklist, Rules is geared for grades 4-7, but I think there's something here for all ages. I think a younger child would enjoy having this read out loud, and obviously I enjoyed reading it as an adult. (I did eventually get to those pancakes, too!)

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