*Good literature must convey an universal truth.
*Childrens books must possess endings that neither cause readers to sink into a miserable bog, nor float youngsters into endless clouds.
*All works of fictionwhether for adults or childrenmust be written in the past tense. Although this rule applies to all points of view, it is particularly applicable to stories using first-person.
*Metaphors turn dull volumes to masterpieces in a matter of mere phrases.
Does Cynthia Lords young-adult novel Rules meet these criteria? Does a book discussing rules follow the all-important standards of a rigid literary critic?
FORTY-EIGHT COLORED PENCILS
Catherines summer vacation is defined by myriad colors and a sketchbook replete with brilliant drawings. Her large supply of colored pencils fuels her passion to create masterpiecesthough her shy nature prevents her from acknowledging that her artwork is above average.
However, Catherine is vexed by the continual challenges posed by her younger brother David. The latters autism frequently frustrates Catherine, for she feels that she must teach him everything. David enjoys listening to Arnold Lobels Frog and Toad series on cassette and has memorized each of the books word-for-word. He frequently uses conversations taken from the books to communicate with his sister. David also enjoys counting cars, going to the video store, andabove allrules.
Of these, Catherine creates several for herself and her brother to follow. David must realize that there is to be no [putting] toys in the fish tank and that when somebody says Hi, you say hi back. Some rules, however, are more difficult to teach David. How can one explain that laughter may be a sign of either friendship or mockery?
Catherine further writes guidelines regarding her own life: No dancing unless Im in my room or its pitch-black dark. Looking closer can make something beautiful. Not everything worth keeping has to be useful. Many of her rules, though simple, carry a deeper message lovely to behold.
Despite Catherines well-intentioned rules, David sometimes finds himself in difficult situations. Catherine is generally expected to baby-sit, as her parents jobs prevent them from watching David. Even when they are caring for David, Catherine finds herself somewhat in want, for her parents seem to value her brother above her.
Jason, a young man who attends the same clinic that David visits, is mute and in a wheelchair. Although his communication book is replete with words, Catherine feels that Jasons vocabulary is too limited. Why say that you are mad when you could say that an event stinks a big one, is frustrating, or leaves you torn? Contrary to popular belief, Jason is quite intelligent and the two carry on several conversations using the communication book. Catherines new words and accompanying illustrations enhance Jasons abilities to convey colorful messages. Together, the two go for a run and spend a bit of time by the oceantwo activities that Jason has never before experienced.
Despite her growing friendship with Jason, Catherine feels ashamed of him and of her little brotherparticularly in front of her next-door neighbor. Catherines new friend dislikes many of Catherines favorite activities, intentionally embarrasses David, and generally seems disdainful of anything save perfection. It is more important to embrace friendship and break self-inflicted rules than to accept fair-weather companions. Only upon realizing this is Catherine able to drag herself from the restraints of peer-pressure.
Catherines relationships with her family, Jason, and her exquisitely perfect neighbor culminate in two celebrationsboth rather bittersweet. I shall not here reveal the ending; suffice it to say that, though resolution is ultimately achieved, Catherine is not able to drift upon airy hopes.
WHY WITH AN ATTITUDE
Thus does Catherine describe the phrase why not before depicting it for Jasons communication book. Indeed, the entire novel is enhanced through rich expressions. Drawings of grass on stark paper become an eyelash curve of green, cutting all that white. Shops in the summer heat appear tired. This frequently metaphoric language remains relatively simple, so as to capture the attention of a fifth-eighth-grade audience. Yet, such expressions lend Rules a certain charm that many modern childrens books lack.
Throughout my lengthy sojourn in Livre-Ville (French for Bookland), I have encountered many books written in first-person present. These, I have generally discarded in disgust: for the style generally leads itself to bleak characters and desolate storylines. This novel has forever dispelled my disdain for present-tense writing. The books first-person narration lends it a deep warmth, while the present tense allows the book to flow beautifully. This book resembles one of Catherines sketchesnot entirely perfect, yet vibrant and lovely to behold.
It is important to note that this book is not divided into numbered chapters. Rather, each section begins with a rule. At first, I was somewhat deterred by this lack of structure. Eventually, however, I developed a fondness for this rebellion against conventions.
SEVERAL RULES WORTH BREAKING
One of Catherines self-imposed guidelines states that leaving out [information] isnt the same as lying. Although society generally accepts this standard and may easily accept small omissions of truth, some parents might feel uncomfortable exposing their children to such a rule.
Catherines parents seem to have written a mutual rule with which I particularly disagree: Children with disabilities need more care than those without. Moreover, it is essential to care for a familys financial needs before tending to a childs emotional needs. This is particularly true if the child in question does not have a disability.
Forgive my caustic words; this is the one complaint that I have concerning Rules. Catherine notes throughout the book that her parents give David far more attention, and do little with her. Their work seems to consume themalbeit in differing ways. Upon eventually attaining her fathers attention following a rather distressing afternoon, Catherine becomes angry with him and remarks that he should place more value upon her. Although her father assures her gently that she is highly valuable, little else is said to cement their reconciliation. Throughout the book, Catherines parents seemed somewhat heedless of her feelings; I would have preferred to witness a bit more resolution in this area.
Moreover, Catherine seems constantly ashamed of David. Even when the two are alone, she despises watching him. Only during the last two paragraphs of the book is Catherines love for her little brother revealed. Although I know that the author was attempting to demonstrate the challenges that a special-needs child may present, she neglected to show the many aspects that could potentially make David so endearing to Catherine.
WERE THE RULES FOLLOWED?
If all literature contains an universal purpose, Cynthia Lords book qualifies. One may learn from it to see beauty through imperfection and to develop friendship through perseverance. (Well am I aware that this book is not Little Women; however, in a world increasingly populated by plotless pulp fiction, this could easily qualify as modern childrens literature.)
Though a bit weak regarding some points of resolution, this book carries a satisfactory ending that will provide children with hope. Its metaphoric language endears it to one always searching for good quality in reading material. Although the novel is not written using my preferred writing style, the first-person present viewpoint does not detract from this young girls modest journal.
I admit that I enjoyed this book immensely; I was amused by Catherines lavish vocabulary, and deeply touched by her friendship with Jason. Although some minor discrepancies to exist, I believe that this author followed most of the rules for writing an exemplary childrens work. Those rules that she broke were relaxed with very nice results.
I would recommend this book to all individuals from grades 5-8. Those who have a sibling with disabilities may be particularly interested in Catherines story. If you plan to give this as a gift, read it first; you know that it is your duty as a parent to glean from any childrens book all the pleasure that it has to offer! Then, present it to the youngster in your care with a joyful letter and a box of forty-eight colored pencils.
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