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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Special Needs Characters Enlarge Our Sense of Humanity

In recent years a number of really remarkable books about children with special needs show us from the inside out how these children view their world. The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida may well challenge some of our deepest held convictions about communication. Do not skip over the introduction, written by David Mitchell, a devoted father who felt as if he was coming to the end of his rope in dealing with his autistic son.  Higashida’s memoir, originally written in Japanese and translated into English for the first time in this book, was the first book on autism that really resonated with Mitchell and transformed the relationship he had with his son. With the use of an alphabet grid, Higashida “dictates” answers to his mother, concerning various questions about his behavior, intentions and the very deep feelings he has about various situations that arise as a result of his autism. His explanations are simple, yet eloquent and often heart-rending. The challenges of his daily endeavors are enormous. This is an adult biography that I would recommend for middle school on up.
I have encountered two highly memorable characters with Asperger’s Syndrome from youth fiction. One is Mockingbird (mok’ing-burd) by Kathryn Erskine, who deservedly won the National Children’s book award in 2010 for this story. Eleven-year-old Caitlin with Asperger’s seeks closure in dealing with the death of her beloved brother. I would recommend Mockingbird for grades 5 – 8. For older teens, I would recommend the delightful Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork. Marcelo’s father insists that his son with Asperger’s experience the “real world” by working at his Dad’s law office. Marcelo’s honesty is at turns insightful and refreshing.
I am in general a big fan of Sharon Draper’s characters. Out of My Mind is a stunning fictional portrayal of a girl with severe multiple sclerosis who is trapped in her body. From all appearances, Melody seems to be totally lacking in the intelligence requisite for communication. And yet her mother intuits her case to be otherwise, based on very subtle body language. Through the use of technology and of her mother’s care, determination and attention, Melody is given the opportunity little by little to not only relate to others around her, but contribute beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Having experienced some exhilarating moments from inside Melody’s head, one is brought down to earth in the end by the shadows of some of Melody’s less supportive peers. This is a great book to pair with the Higashida autobiography. (Highly recommend Out of My Mind for 5th – 8th grade readers.)

-Maggie Wrobel,  Centreville Regional Library

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