Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anything But Typical, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Title:  Anything But Typical
Author:  Nora Raleigh Baskin
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing
Pages:  208
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Self-Acceptance, Friendship, Disabilities
Age Level:  4th through 7th Grade

Jason Block is a boy with autism navigating the neurotypical world.  The book, told in a first person narrative from Jason, tells the story of Jason's atypical behaviors-such as hand flapping and hair pulling-and the very typical feelings of awkwardness, self-doubt, and fear that almost any 12 year old feels from time to time.  We discover that Jason is a creative writing whiz, and he begins an online correspondence with another author on his favorite writing website.  The girl, nicknamed Phoenixbird, loves Jason's stories, and frequently asks him for advice for her stories.  Jason feels like he may finally have his first real friend-until the possibility that they could meet in person derails his good feeling.  Can she like him if she sees how he really is?

Having worked with children with autism many times over the year, I can state that this narrative feels as authentic to me as anyone could write, given the fact that many people with autism have difficulty communicating at all, and especially in communicating their feelings.  Jason has a rich internal life, which he is frequently frustrated about not being able to express.  Like many young people with autism, Jason has learned and developed rules for himself to govern his social interactions,  but the tumultuous period of preadolescence leaves him unprepared for  the ways that he and his peers are changing.  

Baskin does an admirable job keeping this book from becoming another "heart-warming" story of overcoming disabilities.  Not that it doesn't have its tear-inducing moments, but unlike books I like to call the "Lifetime Movie" version of literature, there are no completely easy answers for Jason.  His mother has still not really come to terms with his disability, and she is alternately overly-protective and frustrated by his behaviors.  More than once I wanted to tell her to lay off-if Jason doesn't care that his belt is too tight why should she?  But I have worked with many parents over the years who have trouble finding a balance between accepting their child for who they are and helping them become more "typical".  When Jason finally meets Phoenixbird, it does not go as smoothly as Jason (and the reader) wish that it would.  But that is real life for many children with disabilities, and makes Baskin's story ring true.

Teacher Resources:
Simon and Schuster Reading Guide 
Nora Baskin's Website 
Autism Awareness Lesson Plans 

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