Rules - Cynthia Lord

Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She's spent years trying to teach David the rules from "a peach is not a funny-looking apple" to "keep your pants on in public"---in order to head off David's embarrassing behaviors.
But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the next-door friend she's always wished for, it's her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?

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I read this as part of an upcoming vlog I'm doing about novels and memoirs featuring stories of autism & Asperger's. Rules won the 2007 Newberry Honor Book Award and rightfully so, IMO. I really enjoyed how this tells an important story that I'm sure a number of children will be able to relate to -- I have an autistic cousin myself, an adult now, but much of what was described in this story are scenes I saw in his household when we were kids. I was also impressed at the end note when it's mentioned that the author herself, Cynthia Lord, is a mother of an autistic child. 

 

Twelve year old Catherine is sort of left with the majority of the responsibility of teaching her autistic brother David (I believe he is her older brother) how to behave in public... which struck me as quite a weight to put on a young, pre-teen girl! But Catherine has a system worked out like a pro -- she has a notebook where she writes down rules for him to repeat to himself, as well as some "helpful hints" explaining social norms. The written rules work like a charm and Catherine just adds to them as situations arise where a new rule needs to be added. Some of these rules were so perfect and they sometimes struck me as rules anyone can use a reminder of from time to time. Some of my favorites:

 

** Looking closer can make something beautiful

 

** Sometimes people laugh when they like you. But sometimes they laugh to hurt you.

 

** If you don't want to do something, say "Hmm, I'll think about it" and maybe the asker will forget the whole bad idea.

 

 

Catherine also develops a friendship with a special-needs boy her age through her brother's occupational therapy office. They strike up conversations in the waiting room which slowly starts to develop into a really touching friendship outside the office. I don't think it was entirely explained why, but this boy Jason is mute & confined to a wheelchair but he and Catherine are able to communicate through vocabulary cards. It seems like it develops to the point of an almost-romance... possibly? That part is sort of left up in the air by story's end. 

 

Really loved this book, how it was funny and touching without being weepy or woe-is-me. The characters move through their struggles with amazing grace for children, more so than the adults! The characters don't ask for pity, they openly admit to wanting to learn how to be better people, aware that they have a good deal of emotional maturity yet to go through. The story is entertaining, with moments of comedy while still being moving. I think it also provides perfect discussion material for adults and young readers alike.