Navigating the Language of Love, Friendship, and Relationships: Puddle Jumping by Amber L. Johnson

No, this isn't a new segment on GB. :)

No, this isn’t a new segment on GB. 🙂

A glass of ice-cold water on a hot summer day. The soft breeze blowing while walking through a still morning. The smell of grass after the rain. The quiet in the evening as the house settles into sleep. Reading Amber L. Johnson’s Puddle Jumping brought to surface these moments–quiet, still, refreshing, and truthful, wherein the reader upon putting down the story finds herself with a small smile across her face. A smile of recognition and hope.

[IPHIGENE]: I wasn’t expecting to find this book. Can I romanticize it with the word Serendipity or Fate? I just felt I was meant to read this book. It isn’t a best seller, but I found it and loved it and wanted people to read it more. Anyway, the truth is, Goodreads led me to this book. I was looking through some list, clicked on one book, and then below was a list of books that aren’t popular but people should be reading (I’m not sure the exact title on the list). I read its summary. I was intrigued enough to get a copy. I wanted to talk about it and mentioned it to Fats. She looked for a copy in their library, but could not find any. So she ordered a used copy sold by All-Booked-Up and fulfilled by Amazon. With a promised phone call up coming, we decided to talk about this book in between catching up. That conversation led to this post.

Encouraged by Fats’s message after reading the book (“I finished the book!! And I loved it!! That was really sweet story!! Thank you for letting me about it!!”) and the eight exclamation points that came with it, I was excited to get into a conversation about it. This was something we did back in college when we could hang out and talk about books. In this discussion we focused on what we felt were important aspects in the novel.

Aspergers

Asperger is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development (Wikipedia).

[IPHIGENE]:I have, over the years, been able to work and converse with children on the spectrum. Some of them twice-exceptional (ASD with High IQs), some of them non-verbal, and others, like Colton, are artists. At the beginning of my work, I saw the stark difference between these children and other kids. However, as I came to know these children talk about their concerns, their desires, and their newly acquired knowledge, I found the label “ASD” to fall away. What is left is the person, and like everyone else they have their quirks, idiosyncrasies, and gifts. Colton’s social awkwardness, straightforwardness, and literal way of speaking, to me, were real and endearing to my psychologist heart.

I asked Fats about her thoughts on Aspergers or ASD and who it played out in the book. While aware of it, her knowledge she admits is limited.

[FATS]:I don’t really know a lot about Asperger’s syndrome. Based on the books I’ve read in the past, I understand that it is an autism spectrum disorder in which affected children and adults are socially inept. They have difficulty with social interactions and (maybe?) expressing their emotions. From my readings, it appears that people with Asperger’s syndrome are gifted with a specialized area of interest like mathematics in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and art in Amber Johnson’s Puddle Jumping.

With Colton, I would say that the formality of his speech/language is not something you typically hear from a guy his age. And maybe his stiff demeanor, his social awkwardness is not really exhibited much, I don’t think. He is comfortable around Lilly. I suppose the only particular scene that captures this was punching Blake.

[IPHIGENE]:Colton, the main object of the narrator’s–Lilly’s–affection falls within the spectrum. We don’t get a feel of this at the start of the story. All we know is that he is a 9 year old boy who loves to draw and who Lilly draws out to do crazy things such as mattress surfing and playing in the rain. Colton’s disorder is only revealed later on, in a craft fair where his art is a hit and his conditioned spelled out in a flyer. We learn all of this through Lilly’s lenses. As she learns about it, so does the reader. As she negotiates between what she is accustomed to and to what Colton understands, we too learn to negotiate those nuances. While the reader is made aware of Colton’s condition, the writer also makes the reader understand the uniqueness of Aspergers with the same compassion and heart as Lilly does.

Love

Puddle Jumping is a love story. If the prologue isn’t enough evidence, we don’t know what else is.

LillyColton2

There is no going around that. It was Fats that brought out in the discussion and in true book nerd tradition we explore this topic by expounding on passages we felt provided the story’s idea of love.

Puddle1

[FATS]:Love has no labels. Loving someone requires holding back judgment, finding beauty and goodness in that person, and accepting that person wholeheartedly.

Puddle2

[FATS]:Love is about learning. Loving someone involves constantly discovering things about yourself and the person you love. Sometimes, when we least expect it, love changes us.

[IPHIGENE]:I have to say that Fats covered most of it with her answers, but this particular profession by Lilly caught me:

“I love him, you know. And not in a puppy love or teenage love sort of way. I know what it’s like to be with someone because it’s easy… Being with Colton is not easy. It’s hard. It’s work. But if I think about my life before him, and my life with him… the struggle and work is worth all of it.” (p. 104)

I’m not a big believer in love being easy. While I appreciate the “romcom” and the “love at first sight” aspects of a story, I feel in the end we do make active choices in love. Sustaining a relationship is beyond the swoon and the honeymoon, its partly about making choices to continuously engage with the other person. It requires a willingness to give and take, to understand and to be vulnerable. This perspective felt grounded and real to me.

I need to put it out there that Colton’s “I love you” doesn’t always come in words. It comes in different ways, in paintings or in saying “you were always my Lilly” or “you are my quiet.” There is a definite weight to hearing the words uttered, but I feel when we listen more carefully, the truth, its profession is in the unarticulated. The artist’s truth is in his medium. An artist paints, writes poetry, sculpts or whatnot in order to bring to the external world his/her internal world. I felt each of Colton’s painting from when he was 9 years old spoke more than any combination of words. I understand this profoundly in my own journey as an artist. This, I think is one that Puddle Jumping successfully puts out there as it allows us to navigate love in its different languages.

Without Stereotypes

In most YA novels there are stereotypical characters, while main characters or the narrative voice defies the norm, on the peripheral are supporting characters that fall within a type. As afterthought in our discussion of this novel we looked into how this novel dealt with your typical high school stereotype, what we found was a little more complex high school structure.

[FATS]:One of the things I love about this book is its ‘treatment’ of the characters. I like how the characters were given just the right ‘exposure’, if you catch my drift. The supporting characters – Lilly and Colton’s families and small circle of friends – did not just have cameo roles. They played important roles in the character development of Lilly and Colton.

[IPHIGENE]:To further Fats’ thoughts, I love that this book was free of the normal stereotypes. There was a lot of warmth in the book and a lot of mixed up groups that stood up for each other. I love that a football player and his popular girlfriend sat with what would be considered the ‘reject’ table. I like that Lilly is ballsy and doesn’t care about what other people said. (Okay, I love her for that!) I love that her best friend Harper wasn’t your mean girl despite what could seem like a mean-girl stereotypical character. Was this the real world? I don’t know. I think in some ways it is. While high school can be brutal, I also think the typical groups and stereotypes aren’t fixed. Not all jocks are jerks, not all cheerleaders are mean girls, and not all ‘rejects’ are angsty. I felt that Johnson’s focus on the real difficulty in dealing with a relationship was refreshing. There were no easy roads, just pure determination in both characters to jump puddles.

Puddle Jumping

The title was sort of a mystery to both us. Fats, after reading, asked: Why do you think the author named the book ‘Puddle Jumping’? What is the significance of puddle jumping for Lilly and Colton?

[IPHIGENE]:I read this book twice. First time I read through it in one sitting. The second time when I asked Fats to read it. Both times I tried to figure out the title. I remember encountering the concept of puddle jumping 3 times. The first time was when they were children, when Colton covered his ears and jumped over two puddles as Lilly got hit by lightning. The second time was when Lilly saw a poster:

Puddle3

The third time was when Lilly and Colton took a walk outside. It began to rain.“This time he didn’t cover his ears. Instead he grabbed my hand and started to run, jumping over puddles as we raced back to his house.”

[To FATS]: Jumping in puddles is what most, if not all, kids enjoy doing. In the case of Lilly and Colton, I think the title makes a reference to 1) their childhood and how they first met; and 2) jumping into the unknown and exploring their relationship. It’s interesting to note that the image on the book cover – at least on the copy I bought – does not have anything to do with puddle jumping at all. Anyway, that’s how I see it. I’m not exactly sure why it’s called as such.

[IPHIGENE]:I think their story is both a story of Friendship and Love. I always think the deeper essence of love is friendship. Once the frills, the romance, the newness of things dissipate, what is left is friendship. Looking at these 3 puddle jumping encounters, we see at the beginning that they weren’t friends. In the second one, we see Lilly’s desire and wonder about friendship. Finally, in the third part, we see that they are exactly the ones in the picture. They are both navigating the puddles of a relationship that is uncomfortable for both of them, but worth it. Helping them, in some ways, in the navigating is Colton’s mom Sharon Neely.

Mothers

As we put this post together, we came to realize we never were able to talk about Colton’s mom whose role was as important as the main leads. She was a mother who made things possible, from getting her son playmates to supporting his art. Sharon Neely was present in every inch of the novel, probably echoing the author’s own sentiments as a mother. Her presence as this advocate of her son made Lilly put her up into superhero status only to realize, Mrs. Neely was truly just a mother.

[FATS]:Mrs. Neely was a guiding presence in Lilly and Colton’s lives who constantly looked out for them and had their best interests at heart. She was Colton’s loving mother, and her fears for her son’s future were understandable. She was protective to a certain point. She seemed like overcompensating but only because she had always been supportive of Colton’s endeavors and decisions. Mrs. Neely was also like a second mother to Lilly who always knew the right words to tell Lilly when the going gets tough. In fact, some of the best moments in the book came from Mrs. Neely’s heart-to-heart conversations with Lilly.

“Maybe I should have told you when you were younger. But if I walked into every room announcing that he wasn’t the same as everyone else, it wouldn’t have done him any favors. I want people to see him for who he is. All I’ve ever wanted was for him to have some semblance of a normal childhood – a normal life. When you came around, I thought maybe, because he was so enamored with you, that you two would be a good fit. You’ve never judged him. I’m overprotective to a fault because of what we’ve been through, and it was a rash decision to remove you from his life, but I felt it was best at the time. But he never forgot you. Not for one day. There are paintings upstairs that prove just that. And if you can hold onto that truth for the future, when things get tough and you’re feeling like it’s a little one-sided, then maybe it won’t be so bad.” (pp. 60-61)

As Iphigene puts it, Mrs. Neely acts like a “translator” between Colton and Lilly. She plays a critical role in putting to words what Colton could not say. Yes, Colton have said things to Lilly – truthful, sometimes brutally honest, things – but Mrs. Neely expounds on those things in a way that Lilly would fully understand.

Final Thoughts

Reading this book, we didn’t think we were going to talk about much. We both agreed that the narration was simple and straightforward. Our Goodreads reviews of Puddle Jumping were quite succinct.

Iphigene wrote: Teens. Falling in love. Navigating the nuances of asperger in a relationship. Art.
Fats wrote: Ack! I’m at a loss for words. It’s beautiful.

But, as we discussed the book over Facebook, we started coming up with more to say. Even after the conversation as we put this post together there were things that we thought we needed to cover. It isn’t the perfect book, but there is so much to like about it and whatever issue we had with it is outweighed by what we loved about it.

[FATS]: I’d like to start by saying that I enjoyed reading the book immensely. I like how it’s different from other YA books I’ve read, especially in its portrayal of love. I like the characters of Lilly and Colton – who are both funny in their own ways. I like the simple storytelling, the not-so-complicated plot, and the fact that the book is a relatively short read. I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I dislike about the book. There was a part where I didn’t like how the character reacted* but that did not affect how I feel about the book in general.

*Just to feed your curiosity, I was talking about the part where Lilly and Colton were having a serious talk. 

ColtonLilly1

[IPHIGENE]: I like its very premise about a girl falling for a guy with Asperger’s. I have read quite a few books with characters falling on the spectrum, but none of them were YA or about falling in love. It’s important to say that I work with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and I spend a lot of time talking to them and interacting with them. I’m one of those people who have the privilege of hearing their personal stories. What this book did for me was bring to light another facet of the children I work with. That is, like us, they also have feelings. It might not be expressed in the way that we are used to, but they do.

I also like that the story balances the differences as well as the similarities. The protagonist Lilly sees the difference not as the disorder, but as a given to a person, like a personality quirk, a preference, or an individuality. I love that.

The book is supposedly written by the 18 year old Lilly as a way to narrate everything that happened between her and Colton. I haven’t read the other books of the author, but there were some parts that was frustrating to me. This is a personal preference; Fats didn’t have problems with the writing itself. There were moments when some words felt trite. For instance ‘nosedive’ was used a few times that I wish there was another way it could have written. I was also frustrated over the description of Colton’s painting. This is the visual thinker in me. I wanted more. I wanted to have enough to imagine it. The visual artist in me wanted to see the picture. I wanted to have a picture of Lilly and Colton and the painting that showed them. This, however, are just little quibbles.

We don’t know if this story is completely possible. It is in the least a wish, a whisper of hope.

[IPHIGENE]: I think it is. I have met teenagers who fall in the spectrum that fall in love and I have met parents where one parent is diagnosed with ASD, who is happily married and has children. But I also think it is about seeing beyond the label while acknowledging the difference that will make a story like this possible.

[FATS]: I’d like to believe that such story is possible. I’d like to believe that there is at least one person in this world who is as patient, understanding, and dedicated as Lilly. I’d like to believe that someone like Colton is capable of forming and maintaining a relationship – whether it’s friendship or love. As I’ve mentioned on my Facebook status, I believe in the human capacity to love.

In the end, we suppose, what this book provided us with is the faith that the human being can see diversity and appreciate the differences enough to love and navigate through those differences.

2 Comments on Navigating the Language of Love, Friendship, and Relationships: Puddle Jumping by Amber L. Johnson

  1. You beautiful beautiful people. You made me so happy this morning. 🙂

    Like

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  1. [Saturday Reads] On Reading Challenges and Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson | Gathering Books

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