Friday, September 4, 2009

Review of Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Anything But Typical. Simon & Schuster, 2009.

12-year-old Jason is autistic, and there is no hiding the fact – when he gets upset, his hands fly around his face, he utters strange noises, and occasionally he even throws things, breaks things, or climbs under furniture. Even at the best of times, his responses to people and even his clothing (he likes to wear his belt cinched tightly around his waist, which pulls his pants up above his ankles) make it clear to everyone around him that he isn’t “typical.”

Jason is lucky to have a little brother who adores him, loving parents who try their hardest to understand and accept him, and a gift for writing short stories that he shares on the website Storyboard. He also has a rather stunning ability to understand himself, even if other people sometimes leave him a bit mystified, and this self-understanding is what constitutes both the strength and, for me, the off-putting aspect of this book.

We learn about his adverse reactions to stimuli like bright lights, loud noises, and frustrating or confusing situations not so much from his description of how he feels but from his description of how others react to his behavior. This has the excellent effect of demonstrating just how distanced Jason feels from the reasons for other people’s behavior – surely one of the hallmarks of his autism. However, his measured prose (he is a writer, after all) as he discusses yet another episode in which he inadvertently causes a scene distances us from Jason, as well; except for the fact that his reactions are extreme, it’s hard to understand how a certain situation has affected him so viscerally. I didn’t get a sense of his emotions as he reacts to a situation, and perhaps that’s the point – Jason can analyze himself and the world around him, but for him, emotions are more difficult to understand or describe.

His relationship with his family is moving and wonderfully described, as is his frustration at and eventual acceptance of the fact that he cannot escape who he is, and I was quite relieved at the realistic outcome of his real-life meeting with a girl he met through Storyboard – but in the end, I couldn’t quite believe in Jason. Despite the outward symptoms of his autism, he simply comes across as way more insightful than any real 12-year-old boy. It makes for a fascinating and well-written book but also a slightly distancing one. And speaking of distancing, I think the cover art is not going to attract many kids - this is definitely a book that will have to be hand-sold and booktalked, as it will not spring off the shelves by itself.

Despite those quibbles, this is highly recommended for ages 10 to 14.

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