Don't judge a book by its cover, unless it's got a picture of a ferris wheel on it (something tragic always happens in those). Exception #2: If it's Cynthia Lord's Rules. Because the delicious aquamarine fish-and-rubber-ducky cover is the perfect summation of this story.
Twelve-year-old Catherine has a list of rules for her younger brother David, who is autistic. David doesn't operate by the "normal" social rules, so her suggestions are meant to help him, whether he's screaming in the middle of the video store or being picked on by the neighborhood's mean kid, Ryan. The rules are mostly simple things, like "No toys in the fish tank" or "When someone says hi, you say hi back." A few are more complex suggestions: "Sometimes people laugh when they like you. But sometimes they laugh to hurt you." And some completely are written mostly for Catherine's benefit: "Pantless brothers are not my problem."
Except...they are her problem. A new neighbor is moving in next door, and Catherine is ecstatic about having a summertime best friend (her normal BFF is visiting dad for vacation). But becoming friends with Kristi could prove to be difficult, especially when David's always around, making a scene or repeating lines from Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series. No one really understands what it's like, and Catherine tries to keep that part of her life to herself.
However, Catherine slowly learns that everyone is different--and, along with that, that not one of them is really "normal." When she heads to occupational therapy with David, she unwittingly befriends Jason, a nonverbal guy her age, who gets angry when he sees her drawing him and his wheelchair. Catherine realizes that Jason--who can only communicate by tapping word cards--has a severely limited vocabulary and sets out to make more word cards. In doing so, her view of friendship gets flipped on its head...and so do all of her expectations for Kristi, Jason, David, and herself.
Cynthia Lord has concocted a story most deserving of its Newbery Honor. It digs at the heart without getting sappy or preachy, even though the ending turns out a little too cleanly.
Catherine's character is realistic and likable; she's a good balance of responsible older sister and disgruntled caretaker who wants some free time. Kristi is pretty believable as the new girl who wants a friend but isn't sure about the weird neighbors she's received. However, it's also Kristi who dishes out a sharp insight partway through the book that knocks Catherine--and the audience--aback a bit. Here we are, thinking she's going to be some shallow girl focused on appearance (and attracting Ryan!), but she lets her good side shine through every once in awhile. And that contrasts just right with Catherine's point of view, showing that even the best of people get it wrong sometimes.
Lord's portrayal of autism is simple and sensitive. It's something hard to describe, as autism affects everyone a little differently--but she does a good job bringing out some typical behaviors (quoting well-loved books, for instance, or obsessions with videos) while not patronizing David or forcing him to fit into a narrow box. Same with Jason, for that matter. I did wish for perhaps a little more insight on autism from Catherine's point of view--not definitions or medical explanations or anything. But autism often has a lot of mystery surrounding it, and even though I work one-on-one with autistic children, I still find myself puzzled and intrigued! It would've been nice to get more background rather than just throwing readers into potentially unfamiliar territory and leaving them to wonder why David is acting as he does.
Rules has lots of gentle humor, and it occasionally spins out some very random, hilarious lines. A few snippets are borderline cringe-worthy (like the ever-present "stinks a big one!!!"), but they're neutralized and then dominated by great, if subtle, insights. Though the writing style itself isn't sophisticated or particularly beautiful, it's just right for the story it's telling.
My favorite thing of all is that Catherine realizes that no one is "regular," whatever that means. Not the "normal" Kristi or the "typical" kids at school; not even herself. This is a tough message to communicate, especially when it involves disorders or disabilities. Even careful writers have unintentionally portrayed characters as incomplete because of their physical or mental condition, creating this vaguely condescending view of the "normal" people who "help" the less fortunate. In Rules, Jason freaks out because Catherine draws him sans wheelchair. She tries explaining that she just wanted to see him as he could be...and he shows her that he wants to be seen as he is.
I devoured Rules in one night, and despite the depth of its theme, it's a light, easy read. And it's definitely something that has the power to inspire tiny changes in its readers, if they're willing to consider that all people have problems and all are valuable. I didn't find anything objectionable in the story (although if I can be nit-picky for a second, it drives me crazy that she dated the whole thing with references to Avril Lavigne!). Rules will probably be most interesting for kids in 4th to 7th grade. Or post-college kids. Whichever.
(A similar-hearted book would be Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick.)
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