I’d like to introduce Ann M. Martin to something. It’s called the Autism Spectrum. She seems to believe that all autistic kids are on the most severe end. When I was a kid, I thought that too, thanks entirely to Ann M., for writing this book as well as Kristy and the Secret of Susan. I was sure no autistic kid could talk, hold a conversation, make eye contact (kind of like I was sure no diabetic could ever eat an M&M, thanks to Stacey), and it wasn’t until much later that I learned that autistic =/=savant. Savant qualities are not one and the same as autism, though some autistic kids are savants in some areas.
Jonathan is eleven years old and his biggest problem is his little brother, James. James is four years old and is severely autistic. Like, super severely autistic. He doesn’t talk, he isn’t potty-trained, he flaps his hands, he bangs his head. But he is a savant at building with toys, like Legos and Tinker Toys or whatever.
Jonathan’s second biggest problem is that he kind of wants to be one of the cool boys at school, but he’s hopelessly not cool. He’s got a couple of close friends who are also hopelessly not cool, and they sometimes hang out with a couple of girls who aren’t cool either. Jonathan makes fun of a new borderline-retarded boy in school to try to get in with the cool guys, but it doesn’t really work. And it just makes him feel sick to his stomach anyway. Especially after the cool kids see Jonathan with James at the playground, and James undresses himself and starts eating gravel.
Jonathan’s mom is over-stressed taking care of James with little help from their dad, who finds every excuse in the book to go into the office, particularly when James is acting up. There is a special school that James is on the waiting list for. Finally a call comes in that there’s a spot for James.
But the school is expensive, so there are a lot of sacrifices. Jonathan and his sister Lizzie, who is eight, are told there won’t be any extras. Jonathan tries all these ways of making extra money, including selling seeds door-to-door, doing odd jobs, and putting on a carnival with his best friends. Finally he ends up with a paper route.
When James starts school, there is immediate, but slow, improvement. He starts to say hello, and dress himself. The teachers at the school work closely with the families. Jonathan gets interested when he hears about the school’s fundraising efforts, especially because he knows his parents are paying out the nose for tuition. Since he’s seen improvement in James, and because the idea of institutionalizing James is not off the table, he decides he wants to help.
So he decides to donate some of the money he’d earned from the carnival to James’ school. And because he decides to do that, he gets a write-up in the local paper, which he hopes will encourage others to donate to the school. His friends are proud of him, and when one of the cool guys tries to make fun of him, even the cool girls shut him down. Then Jonathan learns that it doesn’t matter if he’s cool or not.
- Oh Ann. Some of the things you say make no sense. Jonathan is called Jonno by his family, and his sister (Elizabeth) is called Lizzie. He says that they haven’t given James a nickname because it’s impossible to nickname someone you can’t really get to know. Uh…what? When my husband and I were naming my younger son, we actually decided we wanted his nickname to be Gus, and we worked from there, eventually (like two weeks before he was born) agreeing to August as his given name. So we hadn’t even met the kid, and already had a nickname for him.
- Also, my sister just told me a few weeks ago that Gus is a hipster name. Nothing to do with the book, I was just surprised to hear it.
- Then there’s this weird little grammatical error. Jonathan said that he talks to James even though James won’t answer. “For all I know, maybe he tunes out human voices. But just in case, I talk to him pretty much.” Pretty much. I talk to him pretty much. Pretty much what? I don’t care for the phrase pretty much to begin with, but doesn’t have to be qualified with something else? Like “pretty much everyday.” or “pretty much whenever I see him.” Anyone else find that wording totally awkward?
- If I had tried to put on a backyard carnival as a kid, no one would show up. Somehow in Ann M. books, these types of things are always successful.
- Check out that book cover. James is on his knees. That is one freakishly tall four year old. Not to mention, the kid can’t dress himself. Would his mom really fight with overalls? If I had a four year old that wouldn’t dress himself, and who became violent while being dressed, it would be fucking sweatpants every day. Also, nice mom jeans, Lizzie.
- I didn’t get into it much, but Lizzie is a kind of sweet character. She’s very serious for her age and doesn’t have many friends so she tries to tag along with Jonathan and his friends. But she joins brownies and makes some new friends and discovers she is really good at making felt crafts, which she sells to earn extra money.
- This isn’t really a bad book, and it’s good for teaching kids empathy. It’s kind of a middle of the road Ann M. book.