It is a rare occasion to find a book that captures the various elements of one’s life very closely. While it is in many ways goose-bump-inducing, reading Anything But Typical was somehow an exercise about coming face to face with the realities of my life. While I would love to attempt a review completely free of its personal resonance to my life, I cannot do so. In many ways, this review would be a reflection of why I truly love reading….because to me, reading isn’t about finding an escape, it’s about finding yourself.
The strange thing about the parallelism of Baskin’s novel to my life isn’t in the emotional content as let’s say Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of a Hedgehog was to me. The parallelism (or occasional tangential similarity) is in the facts that are spread out throughout this book, which I will slowly unravel as I tackle the subthemes I felt necessary to discuss.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Most people like to talk their own language. They strongly prefer it…But more than talking in their own language, people like to hear things in a way they are most comfortable. The way they are used to…So I will try to tell this story in that way. And I will tell this story in first person. I not he. Me not him. Mine not his. In a neurotypical way. I will try to tell my story in their language, in your language.
I picked up this book because of the protagonist. Having recently been working with kids both gifted and special, specifically those diagnosed with ASD, I felt it would be interesting to read how this book portrayed someone diagnosed with ASD. The novel is written in the first person, making the read an intimate look into the inner workings of the child’s mind. Strangely, though, is that the protagonist is a 12 year old boy called Jason. Here is where parallel one comes in. One of the kids I’m working with is a 12 year old boy with the same first name.
I was part excited and scared about reading this book. I was scared that it would be cliché and not portray the truth about ASD. I was scared it would miss the wonderful gift that kids with ASD had to offer. All my fears however were soothed page after page. Baskin painted neither an ugly or pretty picture of ASD nor what families have to deal with. If anything, I think it captured the heart of the challenges that accompanies with having to accept and live with ASD, which I appreciated.
Reading the book in the first narrative felt like talking to one of the kids I work with. It felt like this is how they are in their heads and maybe they won’t speak it and maybe not find the words, and yes at times its frustrating for them, the trick is for us to learn to communicate with them, maybe in a less neurotypical way.
All we are, all we can be, are the stories we tell…long after we are gone, our words will be all that is left, and who is to say what really happened or even what reality is? Our stories, our fiction, our words will be as close to truth as can be. And no one can take that away from you.
While our protagonist/narrator is someone with ASD and we capture the moments he struggles in communicating his thoughts or in being understood by the world around him, at the core of this story is Jason’s love for writing. It is writing stories that in many ways bridge the gap between his inner thoughts and the world. It is through his love of writing that the reader is taken through the novel’s tension and main problem. Parallel 2 comes in here. Jason writes stories and he would post his stories on a sight called Storyboard. I used to write poetry and I would post it on a poetry site called Sharepoetry. The idea is the same, one post stories or poetry under a pseudonym and wait for people to comment.
Posting work online under a pseudonym and interacting with people of the same interest and with an equal critical eye for writing is an intimate and intense experience. Like Jason, posting my work online freed me from the stereotype. I was able to hide the arbitrary details that could influence the way people judged my work. For Jason, it allowed him to write stories and build an online friendship with the girl called PhoenixBird. There was something to look forward to, but like his made-up character, Bennu, Jason struggles to reveal who he was or to change who he was.
In many ways, writing here is the medium by which Jason achieves equality, as well as the medium that allows him to recognize and accept who he was, no matter what.
I think there were many ways of looking at acceptance. I think of acceptance as a journey towards being alright with the circumstances, but not necessarily being free from the emotional rollercoaster that comes with taking in the different and the challenging.
I think Baskin plays around the idea of acceptance a lot in this novel. We watch how Aaron, a childhood classmate of Jason deals with Jason. He talks to him, but doesn’t really hang out with him. He is kind and protective to Jason, but doesn’t really consider Jason as a friend. We also see the varying degrees of acceptance within Jason’s family. We have the father who is more quiet in his actions and reaction in dealing with Jason, while there’s the mother who expects Jason to miss her or express his emotions in a neurotypical way. While different in their behavior, both are loving and accepting of their son’s condition.
Then there’s being accepted by the opposite sex, by the girl he liked and finding the right way to interact towards someone who knows him only as the writer behind a few good stories, to someone who she knows for real. Finally, in the end this is about self-acceptance. Jason knows who he is, what his condition is – how it all works, but when faced with the reality of meeting someone he liked online the idea of who he was didn’t seem appealing. But Jason finds the truth in writing, as he lets his character Bennu, a dwarf ready for his operation to get taller say:
Sorry, Doc. I changed my mind.
This is who I am.
This is me.
This review doesn’t capture what a gem this book is, but it is something I wish everyone gets to read. Yes, it deals with Autism but to say that’s what this book is all about is too narrow a thought. This book, if I were to summarize, is about discovering and accepting who we are, no matter the weakness.
For parents and teachers out there, the book comes with a reading guide at the end, it is equipped with interesting discussion points that would allow children to explore their own issues as well as the idea of uniqueness and difference.
This novel, Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin is a Cybils Finalist in 2009 for Middle Grade Fiction. Baskin has written a number of novels for middle-grade readers and teens, including The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah, All We Know of Love. She lives with her family in Conneticut.
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Winner of Schneider Family Book Award
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