Posts tagged ‘disabilities/handicaps’

Counting By 7s

Counting by 7sTitle: Counting By 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
Narrator: Robin Miles
ISBN: 978162406902 (audiobook)
Pages: 380 pages
Publisher/Date: Penguin Audio, c2013. (audiobook)
Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2013. (print book)

I’ve got some toddler memories, but my first sequence recall is kindergarten; no matter how hard I’ve tried to forget the experience. [...]
I can still hear Mrs. King, spin straight and shrill voice booming:
“How does this book make you feel?”
She then made a few exaggerated yawns.
I recall looking around at my fellow inmates, thinking: Would someone, anyone, just shout out the word tired? [...]
So when the teacher specifically said:
“Willow, how does this book make you feel?”
I had to tell the truth:
“It makes me feel really bad. The moon can’t hear someone say good night; it is two hundred thirty-five thousand miles away. And bunnies don’t life in houses. Also, I don’t think that the artwork is very interesting.” [...]
That afternoon, I learned the word weirdo because that’s what I was called by the other kids.
When my mom came to pick me up, she found me crying behind the Dumpster. (16-18)

Willow Chance, adopted into a loving family, has an obsession with the number seven, medical conditions (particularly skin disorders), and plants. She is analytic, reserved, and highly gifted and lacks social skills, which makes it difficult to make friends but easy to memorize complex languages and scientific concepts. She finds an ally in older student Mai, who visits with her brother Quang Ha the same slacker school counselor that Willow is forced to see after being falsely accused of cheating on a test. These three unlikely companions, along with Mai’s mother and brother, are thrust together upon the sudden death of Willow’s parents. Forming a bond from secrets, everyone’s lives begin to change as they struggle to help Willow. What will come of quiet girl who has now lost her family for a second time?

Full disclosure: I have not yet read Wonder R.J. Palacio, which everyone I’ve talked to keeps comparing this book too. I will soon, I promise. I found myself comparing it to Rules by Cynthia Lord or Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. In any case, Willow is an instantly intriguing character. Narrated by Robin Miles, Willow’s voice is given the subtle nuances that it deserves. She is self-assured when dealing with numbers, details and scientific facts, but quiet and reserved when faced with making decisions affecting her own life and social interactions. Miles distinguishes between the characters well, even realistically portraying the counselor Dell Duke’s stutter, but it’s Willow who readers are understandably drawn to, as she tries to make sense of things.

Mai’s brother Quang Ha is understandably upset by the new living situation, as the family has few resources to begin with and they are essentially taking care of a stranger. There’s little explanation behind Mai and her mother’s immediate acceptance of Willow’s circumstances and instant claim to her, and I find Dell Duke’s passiveness and eventual involvement in the lies hard to reconcile, but the whole situation changes everyone for the better. This is a story of a whole community coming together to aid in a girl’s recovery, and becoming a very nontraditional family in the process. I don’t think this would be the outcome in real life, but if readers are willing to suspend belief they will be richly rewarded with this engrossing tale.

What We Saw at Night

What We Saw At NightTitle: What We Saw at Night
Author: Jacquelyn Mitchard
ISBN: 9781616951412
Pages: 243 pages
Publisher/Date: Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press), c2013.

All I could see was white. One massive room: white walls, white carpeting, white woodwork. Except . . . right in the middle of the floor, next to the sliding doors, a young woman with dark hair–probably not much older than we were–was on her back. She wore only a bra. A man with his back turned to us was leaning over her. He seemed to be kissing her, then slapping her, then trying to pull her up. [...]
I said, “That girl looked dead.”
“Dead drunk maybe,” Juliet dismissed, drying her camera with her shirt.
“He was doing, like CPR, right?” I asked, mostly to myself.
“Good date gone bad,” Juliet replied. Her voice was flat. “It scared the hell out of me, though, when that light went on.”
The lightning crashed again. We heard a hollow boom–a tree or a light pole down. It happened all the time.
Then Rob said, “Who has a date in a room with no furniture?” (38-39)

Allie and her friends Rob and Juliet all suffer from a fatal allergy to sunlight called Xeroderma Pigmentosum, which relegates them to sleeping during the day and living in the night. Juliet, the more mysterious and adventurous of the three, discovers the sport Parkour and convinces the other two to begin practicing the free-wheeling jumps and leaps, utilizing their nightly sojourns as private practice in their urban playground. During their first attempt at something big, the three witness what appears to be a murder. While Rob and Juliet convince themselves otherwise, Allie pursues the deadly alternative that a murderer is loose in the city. Her investigation isolates her from her friends and also puts her in real danger as she plays detective at a time when most people are safely asleep in their beds. Sometimes the buddy system really is best, and as Juliet pulls further away the closer Allie gets to the truth, and Allie is forced to question who she can trust.

The best word I can use to describe this book is enigmatic. By the end of the book, you’ve followed Allie’s convoluted detective work and Juliet’s inability to answer a question to a suspect, but really no solution. I did not expect the ending, at all, which usually I’m praising because it surprises me. But then there’s a second curve ball after the first, and eventually the book and it’s questions only leaves my head spinning. The three friends seem to be really only friends because they are the only ones who can be friends with each other, due to their unique allergy to the sun. While I can understand that friendship lasting for a little while, I really question why Allie and Rob didn’t cut Juliet loose a long time ago due to frustration of her behavior. It exasperated me that we never got a straight answer of what happened, and by the end I didn’t really care about the characters all that much. They were underdeveloped and I had a hard time relating to their situation, even with all the information provided about their disease and situation.

The one thing that really did intrigue me was the portrayal of Parkour, which I’d heard of previously but never fully seen developed in a story until now. Unfortunately, it seemed like Allie and Rob only picked it up in order to keep their eye on unpredictable Juliet, and we never really find out what prompted Juliet to take up the sport. Besides referencing some Youtube videos, Mitchard does talk about what structures are used and portrays the characters building some core strength and exercising properly before attempting anything elaborate. It’s not a skill that can be gained overnight, and the dangers, illegality, and injuries of the sport are also portrayed realistically without getting preachy or didactic. Stories about mainstream sports abound, so this one peaks my interest and will probably stay with me because of its inclusion of Parkour. Otherwise, the too many questions and not enough answers story line leaves little for me to hold onto until the sequel arrives in December.

Elvis and the Underdogs

Each month for my job, I write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be expanding that idea to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Elvis and the UnderdogsTitle: Elvis and the Underdogs
Author: Jenny Lee
ISBN: 9780062235541
Pages: 300 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2013.
Publication Date: May 14, 2013

“Hi, doggy. My name is Benji. What’s your name, huh?”
The dog opened his mouth again. I thought he was going to lick the other half of my face, but instead he said, “Very nice to meet you, Benji. My name is Parker Elvis Pembroke IV. You may call me Parker Elvis Pembroke. Or Mr. Pembroke, if you prefer. So . . . this place is much smaller than I imagined.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, did I just read that correctly? Did he say the dog talked? Well, I’m here to tell you that you did read correctly, and yes, the dog did talk, and that’s exactly what he said, word for word. But if you’re surprised, you should be, because when it happened, I was just as surprised as you are. So much so that I didn’t even know what to say. My first thought was that the twins were playing a joke on me, and my second thought was that perhaps I was having some weird allergic reaction to the dog, and my third thought was that I’d imagined the whole thing, because I’m a pretty smart kid and I know that dogs do not talk! [...]
And then I fainted. (72-74)

Ten-year-old Benji was born premature and as a result is small for his age, has lots of allergies, faints frequently, and finds himself at the hospital more often than school. The doctor offers Benji an ultimatum; wear an ugly padded helmet everywhere or get a therapy dog. When the dog arrives, it’s not a cute, furry creature but a 200 pound, two feet tall, TALKING Newfoundland named Parker Elvis Pembroke IV, who Benji promptly nicknames Elvis. Only Benji can understand him, which might not be as great as it sounds since bossy Elvis was destined for the White House and is unimpressed with his current situation. Both Benji and Elvis struggle to make sense of this mix-up and determine who’s really top dog. But will Elvis come through for Benji when it matters the most?

Wonderstruck

Title: Wonderstruck: A Novel in Pictures and Words
Author/Illustrator: Brian Selznick
ISBN: 9780545027892
Pages: 639 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, c2011.
Publication Date: September 13, 2011

He inched closer until he was right outside her door. He turned off the flashlight and put it in his back pocket.
The door was open a crack, and he could see the framed Van Gogh print– a big black tree and a swirling night sky with golden stars. A shadow moved across the room.
Ben thought about the shooting star and the impossible wish he’d made. With a trembling hand, he slowly pushed open the door. (69)

By 1977, Ben had lived on the edge of Gunflint Lake, in Minnesota, with his mom for all 12 years of his life until a car accident forced him to move in with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. After a lightning storm strikes the house, Ben discovers a part of his mother’s past and runs away to New York to follow the clues and find his father. Little does he know that he’s tracing the path that another child took 50 years ago, when Rose braved the streets of 1927 New York to follow a mysterious actress. Told in alternating text and pictures, Brian Selznick immitates and expands the concept that he first brought to life with the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret to bring these two stories together.

Anyone who loved Hugo Cabret is bound to fall in love with Wonderstruck because his pictures are just as detailed and intricate. Readers can see the care that Selznick took with each distinguishable pencil stroke, from the scrollwork on the set design pieces to the twinkling eyes. I get the impression that Selznick has a special affinity for eyes, as he “zooms in” through the use of several consecutive pictures that get closer and closer to the iris. I’m just drawn to the characters’ eyes in every one of the portraits, and the engaging expressions you find are very appealing and emotional.

The story itself, while elements are unique and I like the homage to the museums, is not as original as Hugo Cabret. Pardon the pun, but I was not “wonderstruck” by the plot. Maybe my expectations were too high, but it just seemed like the story dragged in spots and there wasn’t a whole lot of urgency. The ending I saw coming and wasn’t really surprised by the outcome.

The setting and illustrations are what lend the magic to the story, as Selznick weaves museum history and the awe that museums inspire with his characters’ enquisitive and curious natures. The other unique aspect was including the Deaf culture and perspective, since one of the characters is deaf. Selznick addresses some aspects of Deaf culture in his acknowledgements, and I really hope his next endeveaor is a sign language book, because the illustrations are so detailed.

The Running Dream

Title: The Running Dream
Author: Wendelin Vaan Draanen
ISBN: 9780375866678
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, c2011.
Publication Date: January 11, 2011

I am a runner.
That’s what I do.
That’s who I am.
Running is all I know, or want, or care about.
It was a race around the soccer field in third grade that swept me into a real love of running.
Breathing the sweet smell of spring grass.
Sailing over dots of blooming clover.
Beating all the boys.
After that, I couldn’t stop. I ran everywhere. Raced everyone. I loved the wind across my cheeks, through my hair.
Running aired out my soul.
It made me feel alive.
And now?
I’m stuck in this bed, knowing I’ll never run again. (6)

Sixteen-year-old Jessica is a runner. She runs for the thrill of feeling the wind through her hair and the punishing burn of continuing even when you’re brain and body are telling you to stop. Her promising career as a runner is cut short after her team’s bus is involved in an accident and she loses her leg. Jessica is heart-broken, and the mounting pile of medical bills, missed homework, and her secret crush’s interest in a teammate who’s anything but a team player does nothing to lift her spirits. Her coach and her best friend have other ideas though, and hatch a plan to help her recuperate. Jessica however, learns the most from a wheelchair bound classmate who is also fighting to be recognized as a person rather than a disability. Will she ever return to the life she loved?

Personally, I had a friend in high school who walked with a limp. I never questioned her about it, and accepted her as a friend. After four years of high school, during the last week of school, she told me that she really appreciated the fact that I never treated her any differently or asked her about her limp, which was a result of a childhood illness. I’m insanely proud and pleased that she felt compelled to tell me that, and I’ve tried to use that as a basis for interaction with others. Readers might also discover this same standard for accepting others as who they are. I’m not going to beat a dead horse about how stereotypes influence our impressions of others, but the lesson rings true throughout this book.

I discovered this book from Ms. Yingling Reads who was raving about it, and actually asked “Is it possible to call dibs on a Cybil’s nomination?” And while I agree with the YA YA YAs who said the happy ending was a little predictable, I didn’t mind. I really didn’t mind all the wonderful support that Jessica gets from her family and friends and doctors and teammates and community. It’s Jessica’s story that readers are engrossed by, and it’s Jessica who has the roller coaster of emotions that keep us riding this heartfelt story that belongs on Lifetime or ABC Family. It’s Jessica’s strength, both internal and external, who inspire readers and had me cheering her and kept me reading until the very end. Jessica is also surprisingly sensitive to others, and worries about how people might react to her missing leg, her insurance problems, and the attention that she is gathering.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jessica’s classmate Rosa, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheel chair. Rosa has some wonderful insights that make readers pause and consider just how they are acting around others who are different than them. It also makes you wonder how should people react. Rosa’s insights just aren’t about treating people properly, but she’s remarkably perceptive and helps Jessica make decisions and guides her in making her own conclusions.

Want more information about this story? Check out the publisher produced book trailer, where Wendelin Van Draanen talks about the book and her motivation for writing it.

Friday Feature — Guest Post by Kathryn Erskine

I was invited to serve as guest reader for a local upper elementary (5th and 6th graders) and I wanted to do something special. I asked around for an advanced reader copy (otherwise known as an ARC) to read from and then giveaway to a student in a random drawing. Kathryn Erskine reached out to me and offered a copy of her upcoming book The Absolute Value of Mike. In that book, Mike has a math learning disability, and in her previous book (Mockingbird) the main character Caitlin has Asperger’s Syndrome. In honor of Disabilities Awareness Month (which is March — I bet you didn’t know that) I invited Kathryn to do a guest post, and she generously agreed. So Thank YOU Kathryn! May I say I think it’s somewhat ironic that we both choose to quote the same scene… you obviously did something right when it speaks to both of us.


As the author of Mockingbird and The Absolute Value of Mike, both of which have main characters with “disabilities” (although I would argue with the use of that word) people ask why I choose such topics.  Well, I simply write about things that are important to me, that speak to me.  I think we can all relate to having a disability because we all have things that are hard for us.

Also, people in my own family have learning disabilities or Asperger’s and I’ve seen how it can rob them of self-esteem, leave them open to teasing, and generally add a lot of difficulty to their lives.  It’s hard, and it’s hard every day.  I think sometimes it’s a challenge to “see” and understand certain disabilities because the people look “normal.”  So, when people don’t follow what we’re saying or don’t catch on to a joke, it’s easy to start dismissing them and perhaps even name calling, in our heads, at least.  As a writer, it’s my job to go inside the story, find out what’s really happening, and give that view.

What does it feel like to have a disability?  For a language related disability, think about hearing only every other word, or what it sounds like when you try to hear under water, or what it would be like to try converse in another language when you only know some of it and you have to find a doctor or an emergency room, fast, and explain the medication someone needs.  That actually happened to me — a great opportunity for me to appreciate what it must be like to have a language impairment — and believe me, my language was incredibly impaired!  It’s both frustrating and frightening.

For Asperger’s, think about being in a totally unfamiliar culture where eye contact is seen as threatening, handshaking is rude, and certain hand gestures, that we’re used to, have different, and sometimes very offensive, meanings.  Or going to a house of worship with which you’re not familiar, and trying to do all the right things at the right times, some of which you’ve never done before and all of which you don’t understand the meaning of.

For a math disability, think of having to do multiple calculations in your head when you’re really sleepy.  Or using an abacus or slide rule if you haven’t used one before (or it has been so long that you don’t remember) and someone is staring at you wondering why you haven’t come up with the answer yet.  Think about balancing your checkbook.  We’ve all made a minor error on occasion and it’s a pain to find and clear up.  Think if that were a regular occurrence.  And the ramifications of those mistakes.

Fortunately, there are many tools and organizations to support a variety of disabilities.  You can access most online.  There’s a wealth of literature out there, too.  You may have friends or family who have learning or other issues, or work with those who do, so you can get some first hand knowledge.  That’s probably the best way to gain an understanding of what it’s really like.  For my writing, I use all of those sources.

Using humor in writing, and in real life, is one of the best tools to deal with any difficulty.  In Mockingbird, Caitlin is very matter of fact in her behavior, which is authentic to many kids with Asperger’s, and yet it provides some comic relief for the rest of us from what can be a very heavy topic.  In The Absolute Value of Mike, we can hear and feel Mike’s insecurity, which makes us chuckle about both his and our own.  Humor can bring us closer together.  And understanding can break down barriers.  In Mockingbird, Caitlin has just lost her brother and tells her counselor that she feels like she’s in TiVo because things seem to start and stop and she feels removed from them.  She really doesn’t want to talk about her feelings, though, so when her counselor keeps talking, Caitlin thinks, I want to tell her that I prefer TiVo on mute and I wish she’d cooperate.  But if I do it’ll start a whole Let’s Talk About It discussion so I say nothing . . . haven’t we all felt that way?

Yes Kathryn, I think we have.

The Absolute Value of Mike

Title: The Absolute Value of Mike
Author: Kathryn Erskine
Pages: 256 pages
Publisher/Date: Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. c2011
Reviewed from ARC furnished by author
Release Date: June 9, 2011

Since I realize ARCs (Advanced Reader Copy) are not the finalized book and can go through the editing process still, I figured I’d quote from GoodReads.com rather than the ARC itself. The cover image was also taken from GoodReads.com.

Mike tries so hard to please his father, but the only language his dad seems to speak is calculus. And for a boy with a math learning disability, nothing could be more difficult. When his dad sends him to live with distant relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer to work on an engineering project, Mike figures this is his big chance to buckle down and prove himself. But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. The project has nothing at all to do with engineering, and he finds himself working alongside his wacky eighty-something- year-old aunt, a homeless man, and a punk rock girl as part of a town-wide project to adopt a boy from Romania. Mike may not learn anything about engineering, but what he does learn is far more valuable.

Okay, be prepared for some family issues. Mike’s great-aunt is named Moo (as in the cow) and is as blind as a bat, but not ready to admit it. His great-uncle is named Poppy (like the flower), and is so overcome with grief by his grown-up son’s death that he stares at the blank television all day, every day. The town project involving adopting this Romanian boy gets put on the shoulders of Mike since no one else is really all that competent at putting things together. The colorful cast of characters in a small secluded town reminded me of Gilmore Girls. Moo especially came to life to me as the stereotypical grandmother. I heard Moo’s voice in my head.

I read a portion of it to a group of fifth graders, doing a grandmotherly voice for Moo, and I felt like a rock star being able to read from a book that hadn’t been published yet. When I told them I was going to raffle it off and give it to one lucky student, the class went crazy. I was a little concerned about some mild swearing. It’s not like it’s the f bomb or anything like that. But when I grew up, “crap” was considered a swear word. My cousins (ages ranging from 10-13) have assured me that no, “crap is not a swear word.” When that changed happened, I don’t know, but I haven’t been able to adapt my thinking to that attitude. So I will admit I was a little concerned.

But the story is a team-work tale, showing the power of working together. It doesn’t matter that Mike isn’t a great architect like his father, because he organizes the rag-tag group of towns people. And while the ending leaves readers wondering if they really will be able to accomplish their goal, I like where it leaves off because the other plot points become resolved. Something different than Mockingbird, but still satisfactory.

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