Posted in book review

{book review} marcelo in the real world

Title: Marcelo in the Real World
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Date of Publication: March 2009
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Marcelo in the Real World is a coming-of-age story touching on neurodiversity, ableism, racism, family, ethics, religion, sexuality, and love – in short, all the passion and philosophy of a teenager stepping into adulthood as experienced by a young neuroatypical Latino man. While Stork is not, as far as I can determine, neurodivergent himself, I find Marcelo to be relatable and authentic as a neurodivergent character: from his subtle stimming, to his sensory struggles, to his logical rules-based method for deciphering people, to his thoughts on life and faith and God. And, quite satisfyingly, the resolution of his story does not come with a cure or a fix for his differences: just an increased understanding of who he is and a vision for living in the “real world” as someone who doesn’t quite fit.

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Posted in autism acceptance month, book review

autistic #ownvoices fiction: planet earth is blue by nicole panteleakos

Title: Planet Earth Is Blue
Author: Nicole Panteleakos
Date of Publication: May 2019
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading Planet Earth Is Blue, the story of a largely nonverbal autistic tween in foster care. I was apprehensive about stereotypes, afraid that situations would be overblown, worried that the book would be poorly written (when I have high hopes for a story, I also tend to have a lot of nervousness about it!). But what I found was an deeply moving story of a girl navigating a difficult time of life, seeking stability in an unstable environment, struggling to communicate, and learning about the kind of love that sees the beloved for who they truly are and fights to help others see and understand them as well.

I read it all in one day, in 5-10 minute snatches as I worked, going so far as to set up my phone on the lab bench to catch the next sentence in between pipettes. (This is not recommended best practice for either lab science or book enjoyment. I just couldn’t put it down.) I cried at least three times and was very thankful my coworker happened to be on the other side of the lab. And at the end, through all the hurt and misunderstandings, there was hope (which I think is particularly important as this book is aimed at the 11-14 year old age group, and when kids that age find a character they identify with they need to know that there is hope for kids like them even when life is hard).

The story begins with our protagonist, Nova Vezina, waking up in the home of her new foster family, having run away from her previous home with her older sister, and missing said sister profoundly. As the story alternates between third person descriptions – often including flashbacks and memories triggered by events in the primary narrative timeline – and first person letters written by Nova to her sister, powerful messages about ableism, humanity, family, and love come to life on the page. Early in the book, for instance, Nova writes,

"I know you always say 'Foster families are not forever families' and 'We should not get attached,' but I think you might like Francine. She talks to me the way people talk to you. Not too loud and too slow, the way they talk to me.

"She talks like I am a person."

Throughout the book, Nova’s feelings, sensory processing, and behaviors – the things that bother her, the things she gets excited about, the stimuli that overwhelm her, her physical expression of all these things – are presented authentically and seriously. They are just as real as any “normal” character’s emotions would be in any other book, and just as deeply important to her. Instead of fitting into the constraints of a stereotype, Nova appears the way a real person does: emotionally complex, internally conflicted about herself and her situation, and passionate about the things and people she loves. We can feel her joy rising like a rocket when she gets to experience the planetarium for the first time, or the deep pit of anxiety when she breaks a toy bound up with personal meaning. The slow buildup of sensory and emotional overwhelm are both portrayed with not only technical accuracy but a style that places the reader in the moment with Nova, seeing and experiencing life from her perspective. And her perspective is never cheapened or flattened.

Nicole Panteleakos drew on great depths of experience with autism to write Nova’s character; diagnosed with autism and OCD herself as an adult, she also worked for years teaching creative writing and communication to autistic kids with limited speech and volunteered with autistic children in various programs and through foster respite care. Additionally, she had multiple autistic tweens and adults read through her drafts to help ensure Nova wouldn’t fall into stereotypes or caricatures. Her exposure to the breadth of the autism spectrum as well as her personal insider’s understanding of it enabled her, I believe, to craft a genuinely human autistic protagonist, unlike any I have encountered from a neurotypical author.

Panteleakos’s Author’s Note at the end of the book also deserves a special mention, being everything I always loved about author’s notes when I was in the target age group for this book (and still love today, to be honest). However, you’ll have to read the story first and discover this on your own 🙂 But with a character like Nova, and with all she gets to experience of unconditional love and belonging as she works to process and overcome not her disability but the challenges of her circumstances, there are countless other reasons to read this book, and no reasons to wait.

As far as I know this is Panteleakos’s first book – I hope she writes more in the future! She does have an excellent article about writing Planet Earth Is Blue that touches on some of the experiences that influenced the book as well as the value of autistic representation in fiction.

Posted in autism acceptance month, sqt

{sqt} – autistic #ownvoices fiction

In the midst of all the covid-19 craziness, life goes on. It’s still Lent, for about another week, and there will still be Easter, and it’s still Autism Acceptance Month now that it’s April! This year, my focus will be on books of fiction written by and/or containing autistic main characters.

Why fiction? There are a lot of good memoirs written by autistic individuals, and non-fiction books addressing autism, but fiction in particular taps into the imagination and vision of the reader. It opens up new perspectives and potentials, allowing the reader to enter into new worlds, relationships, and experiences. So for the neurotypical reader, encountering autistic characters in fiction (assuming they are well-written!) can make autism understandable, relatable, and more human, which will then hopefully translate to the real world. For the autistic reader, those characters can give them people to identify with when they may be surrounded by neurotypical society in real life and in most books.

Another advantage of fiction is that it is more likely to be read by people who aren’t interested specifically in autism – at least not enough to seek out a non-fiction book on the topic – but who are looking for a good story to immerse themselves in. In this way, books with autistic characters can help bring awareness and acceptance of autism to a more mainstream audience.

It’s not so helpful, however, to read fiction with autistic characters if those characters are stereotyped, flat, or defined by their atypical behaviors rather than shown authentically as human beings with complex internal lives and emotional ranges. For that reason, fiction written by autistic authors is particularly valuable, as these authors tend to have more reliable insight into the processing and perspective of autistic characters than neurotypical authors have. It is possible for non-autistic authors to write autistic characters well, of course, and I think it’s important for fiction writers to try to write from a variety of perspectives, but in my experience autistic characters written by autistic authors are much more accurate to life and multi-dimensional.

For those reasons, most of the books I’ll be reviewing this month are #ownvoices autistic fiction – books with an autistic protagonist or important secondary character written by an autistic author – and the exceptions will fit into either one or the other of those categories. I’ve written three reviews already, I’ve read two more books that I need to write up, and I have 2-3 more in reserve – but if you have any suggestions of books you’ve loved or that sound interesting, please let me know! It was difficult to find books in this category and so I’d love to be able to put together a more comprehensive list by the end of the month.

I’m linking up with Kelly again this week – head over and check out the rest of the linkup!

Posted in book lists, book review, sqt

{sqt} – library haul!

We finally made it to the library this week and stumbled upon some pretty good books – a mix of classics and new finds that I’m looking forward to reading. So for the quick takes link-up today at This Ain’t the Lyceum I thought I’d share what we found 🙂

cover of The Mitten by Jan Brett
The Mitten, by Jan Brett

It’s hard to go wrong with Jan Brett books, in my experience – her stories are humorous and the extra details woven into the side panels of her illustrations add so much to the (already excellent) written words. This book has quickly become one of the boys’ favorites; not only have they been asking me to read it over and over again, but Limerick has also spent time reading it on his own and aloud to me with just a little help. In this story, the forest animals (getting steadily larger) all find a place to snuggle inside the mitten Nicki’s grandmother made for him, until finally even the bear wants to join in!

cover for A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams
A Chair For My Mother, Vera B. Williams

This is a new book for me, told from the point of view of a little girl who lives with her grandmother and her hard-working mother. There is poverty and loss here – her mother works long hours and comes home worn out, and the three of them lost everything in a home fire (which is why they are looking for a good chair now) – but there is also community, and hope, and love, and happiness. I laughed when the grandma said she feels like Goldilocks when they are trying to find the perfect chair, and I love the picture at the end of the mother sitting in the new chair with her littler girl snuggled up asleep on her lap. It’s just a beautiful picture of life and family.

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco

Patricia Polacco’s autobiographical picture book about her struggle with dyslexia is definitely not a new book for me, but it is for my kids. Rondel especially was deeply affected by the bullying portrayed in the book, by Trisha’s close relationship with her grandmother, and by the encouragement and help she was finally given by her teacher Mr. Falker. It’s a hard book to read, because of the emotional pain involved, and I’m always in tears at the end, but it so hopeful to see the difference one person’s commitment and care can make in someone else’s life.

cover art of Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

Most people are probably familiar with The Rainbow Fish, the story of the fish who was so special and beautiful that he became arrogant and selfish and ends up having to give away his shimmery scales to make up for his rudeness and find friendship. It’s honestly not one of my favorite books, because I don’t like the pressure put on Rainbow Fish to give away something uniquely his – he could have said no in a much gentler and kinder way, true, but he still should be allowed to say no without losing his relationships with the other fish. Generosity is a good and beautiful thing when it comes from authenticity; bribing other people to like you by giving things to them is not so beautiful. But maybe I’m just looking at it too cynically.

The Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni
The Extraordinary Egg, by Leo Lionni

Ok, I picked this one up on our way out of the library and I haven’t had a chance to read it with the kids (or on my own) yet! But I’m looking forward to it 🙂 We read our first Lionni picture book around Christmas, and I was impressed by the emotional depth of the book (and the illustrations are lovely), so I’ve been wanting to explore more by the author. Given that Rondel’s favorite animal is the alligator, this one seems particularly apropos and I’m excited to read it to him.

Mix It Up cover art
Mix It Up by Hevre Tullet

My mom gave the kids Tullet’s book Press Here for Christmas, along with its companion, the Draw Here activity book (which I saved for them to open on Epiphany). While they all enjoyed the book, Limerick really fell in love with it – he’ll read the books to himself, re-draw the illustrations on the iPad as he tells himself the story, spend hours doing the drawing activities, and even recreate the story with our brain flake building toys! So when I saw this book at the library I knew I had to grab it, and Limerick loved it as well. I’ve read it to him and let him do the shaking, mixing, etc. – and he’s read it to me and had me follow the instructions 🙂 I need to buy more paint, as ours is about empty, and then I’d love to go through this book with all the sensory texture and messiness of real paint!

cover art for My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett

After we finished reading The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, I started looking for other chapter books to read that would be a step above the beginning readers but not too long or complex for a six year old to enjoy. I came across this book on several lists and decided it was worth a try since it’s about dragons and animals (Rondel’s favorites, still) and available at the library 🙂 Although it’s a classic, I’ve never read it, so I’m looking forward to discovering a new great story with the kids.

As a bonus, I found a copy of Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human for myself. I’m hoping to write a lot more about this book after I read it, as well as more about Vanier himself and the L’Arche communities he founded for mentally and intellectually disabled adults, because I haven’t encountered a more hopeful, loving, and godly approach to disability than what I’m starting to discover in his philosophy and work – but I need to learn a lot more before I can really dive into it here.

What books are you reading or looking forward to reading, with kids or on your own? I’d love to hear your thoughts about anything good you’ve been reading lately!

Posted in book review

{book review} lithium: a doctor, a drug, and a breakthrough

book cover for Lithium; pastel rainbow letters over a black-and-white image of a scientist at a microscope
Title: Lithium: A Drug, A Doctor, and A Breakthrough
Author: Walter A. Brown
Date of Publication: August 2019
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lithium, as its subtitle suggests, tells three interwoven stories: that of the life of John Cade, the doctor who discovered lithium’s most important medical use; that of lithium itself from its first discovery as an element to its recognition as both a drug and a toxin; and that of lithium’s bumpy road to acceptance through research trials, scientists’ feuds, and governmental wariness.

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Posted in book lists, sqt

{sqt} – reading highlights of 2018

I’m joining up with the seven quick takes linkup again this week, for the first time in a while, with a fitting theme for the last Friday of the year: 2018 favorites! My focus is going to be on the books I’ve read this year; with my end-of-the-year detour into fan fiction my booklist is shorter than it was in 2017, but it is still full of books I loved and want to share.

Parenting: Differently Wired, by Deborah Reber

differentlywired

If you were following my blog this summer, this favorite should come as no surprise! This is one of the best books I have found for parents of neurodivergent children – one that honors their differences and supports parents in helping their children to remain authentically themselves while also learning to live in a world that is often critical of who they are. For a more in-depth review, see this post leading up to its release this summer. (You may notice I tried to run a giveaway for the book; well, no one entered, so if you feel this book would be relevant or helpful for you, let me know… I still have the extra copy 🙂 )

Science: The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

emperorofallmaladies

This book offers an interesting take on cancer, as it examines the history of human interaction with cancer in all its ethical and political context rather than focusing solely the medical manifestations of the illness (though it delves quite deeply into the biology of cancer as well). I learned a lot and was deeply fascinated through the entire book (but as it was a library book, I can’t go back to pull up any awesome quotes for this post, unfortunately!). While it is very long, I think it is definitely worth the time and effort to read it, especially for anyone interested in biology, pathology, bioethics, or science policy.

Other Non-Fiction: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

justmercy

When you grow up in a privileged environment, it can be challenging to learn about corruption and brokenness in systems skewed in your favor. This book was difficult to read primarily because of the nature of its topic, and the injustices it exposed – whose depths I had no idea existed beforehand (even though I was aware of the biases in our judicial system, I was not aware of the extent of those biases, particularly in certain areas of the country). I picked up this book last Christmas on the recommendation of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, for both myself and my grandma, and both of us agree that it was a powerful and moving book, containing invaluable context for understanding (and hopefully healing) some of the racial and cultural divides in our nation. (For more of my thoughts, and some quotes, see this post from April.)

General Fiction: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

majorpettigrew

In this novel, an old British major slowly falls in love with a Pakistani shopkeeper (both widowed), to the general consternation of her extended family and their entire village. The interactions between them on both individual and sociocultural levels are simultaneously awkward, amusing, and enlightening (in other words, fairly realistic for two very different people from very different backgrounds thrown into contact with one another); and the twists and turns of the plot are both somewhat unexpected and very satisfying. Major Pettigrew especially, as a slightly cynical and cantankerous old British man finding himself in ludicrously unprecedented circumstances, is quite a wonderful character 🙂

Dystopia: American War, by Omar El Akkad

americanwar

I’m surprised I didn’t post about this book back in July! Dystopia is one of my favorite genres, and this one hit particularly close to home. It is set in the southern United States, in a future in which climate change catalyzes a second Civil War; with Northern forces applying external pressure and international agents internally taking advantage of hatred and discontent, the book follows one individual from poverty, through a refugee camp, to indoctrination and grooming in a shadowy terrorist cell. The methods and circumstances are drawn from the actual history of civil war and terrorism in the Middle East, but the culture and setting are undeniably American, and the juxtaposition reinforces both the humanity of people our culture often labels as “other” and the very real possibility that our nation too could be ravaged by the dark side of that shared humanity. I highly recommend it, but it is not a comfortable read.

Science Fiction: Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

lefthandofdarkness

LeGuin is an exceptional world-builder, and I have enjoyed all of her works, but this is in my opinion one of her best, exploring aspects of nationalism, humanity, and gender. How arbitrary are the categories with which we identify ourselves? When one of those categories is rendered meaningless, how do we cope with our own self-understanding, or refashion the image we present to others? How far can one stray from the center of a category and still be considered part of it, by either themselves or by others? And of course all of these questions are not so much discussed as illustrated and implied as the two main characters seek (in both the context of two different nations, as well as in almost total isolation) to accomplish a mission with global and even universal consequences.

Fantasy: Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

nameofthewind

The story here, as wonderfully epic and convoluted and fascinating as it is, in a world with magic and music and legend coming to life, isn’t even the main reason I have to choose this book (and its sequel) as my top fantasy book of the year. Rarely have I encountered an author who can make their prose sing as beautifully as Rothfuss manages to do here. My only disappointment is that the third book in the trilogy has not yet been published, so while each book so far has a definite story arc and is still satisfying to read, the overall story is incomplete.

What are some of your favorite books from this year? Please share in the comments – I always love to hear about good books to read!

Posted in book lists, sqt

{sqt} – what we’re reading now

We finally made it back to the library to return our old set of books (renewed at least three times because we kept forgetting to bring them back) and pick up a new set! We’re missing some of the old ones, but loving some of the new ones, as well as finding classic favorites from our own shelves and Grandma’s house. These seven are some of our current most-read titles.

  1. Make Way For Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey – This one is of course a classic. I had a copy as a child, but the one we have now I managed to find at a thrift store for $1.99, hardcover in perfect condition. I still can’t believe it… Published in the 1940s, it was a classic when I was a child and I wouldn’t be surprised if both my mom and grandma grew up with it. The Boston of the book is probably quite different from the Boston of today – but the story is timeless and the illustrations are absolutely beautiful. The humor is subtle but still has both the boys laughing every time (it’s the rhyming names for the ducklings that really get them). It has the added advantage of being a book I will never grow tired of reading aloud.
  2. Marti and the Mango, by Daniel Moreton – This is another book that I grew up with, although I doubt it is nearly as widely known. We are currently borrowing it from my mom. It tells the story of a mouse who is supposed to find a mango to take to dinner at his friend’s house, but who doesn’t know what a mango is! On each page he asks a different animal if the fruit they have is a mango, and they give him a different point of reference as to why it isn’t. What makes it really enjoyable to read is the alliteration for each animal-fruit pairing as well as the repetition of the mango identification hints on each page, as they accumulate. It is a simple story with the attention to detail (in both words and pictures) that makes it interesting for both parent and child.
  3. How Does a Dinosaur Eat All His Food? by Jane Yolen – This book is from our new library haul, and is I suppose nominally about table manners and dinosaurs, but is really just hilarious as the dinosaurs exhibit every type of horrible, atrocious, behavior. The boys basically fall over laughing every time we read it.
  4. Hello Hello, by Brendan Wenzel – This is another book from our latest trip to the library, and one I didn’t expect the kids to enjoy nearly as much as they have. I had actually noticed it on the display and put it back because I thought they wouldn’t like it – but Rondel also noticed it, had me read it at the library, and then put it in out stack of books to bring home, and all three of the kids have requested it since we’ve had it. The words are very simple and sparse, but the illustrations are bright and bold, as the author takes you through pages of different animals and says hello to them (by category, not by name – the actual species of each animal is in a list in the back, however). Even Aubade will sit through the whole book looking at the animals, and Rondel and I will peek at the back to find out what some of them are that we can’t easily identify (although he’s quite good at remembering all the animals from the documentaries he loves… I probably need the identification key more than he does!)
  5. Tiny Little Fly, by Michael Rosen – This is one of the books we just returned, by the author of We’re Going On a Bear Hunt. It has a similar pattern of repetition and rhyme, beautiful illustrations (this seems to be theme with these books), and a little fly who manages to irritate all the huge animals and get away with it unscathed. The boys were starting to copy the rhythms of it into their conversation and pretend play, which was neat to hear!
  6. Usborne Big Book of Colors – This book has no story; it is just a book naming colors, with a color wheel in the back. But it’s beautiful, with thick not-quite-board-book pages, and the boys and I – especially Limerick – like to sometimes just go through it together enjoying all the gorgeous colors and finding our favorite shades of each. It also sparked a conversation on idioms that link emotion with color, which was interesting for me to think about in depth and a great opportunity to discuss metaphor with Rondel. And why is it that no one is ever described as being “orange” with some emotion?
  7. There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, by Dr. Seuss – This is Aubade’s favorite book right now (in board book form). She will ask us to read it multiple times per day, and multiple times per sitting. I’m not sure what she loves so much about it, but my hunch is that it’s the silly words and silly pictures combined. The book is basically just playing with the English language, and that’s a great way to come at it when you’re still beginning to learn that language.

Head on over to This Ain’t The Lyceum for the rest of the {sqt} link-up today!