‘Cognitive Dissonance’ at NeuroQueer

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity, Writing

NeuroQueer is a very cool online journal whose editors are some of my personal heroes and favorite bloggers, so I’m honored and excited that they have published my review of In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. Many thanks to the wonderful Ibby Grace for making it happen!

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The press release for In A Different Key : The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker says that this book was “written by two journalists personally committed to widening respect, understanding, and support for the loved ones in their families – and in every family touched by autism.” I want you to keep that sentence in mind as you read my review. I want you to note that the supposed object of this widened respect is the autistic person, and remember that as you read on.

In the preface the authors lay out the premise that this book will be about parents, and that “their two main goals – to find out why their children have autism and to make it go away – remain unfulfilled.” 

Dangerous Assumptions

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity, Parenting

Trigger Warning: This post will discuss ableism, abuse and filicide of disabled children and adults, dehumanizing language about autistic people, and harmful behavioral therapy. I’m placing a trigger warning here as a matter of courtesy to readers who have forms of PTSD that could be triggered by these topics.

I recently read a book called Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorious. This remarkably compassionate and sensitive memoir relays the story of how Pistorious fell ill with a virus at age 12, went into a kind of waking coma for a few years, and reemerged into consciousness in his mid-teens. When he awoke from that blackout state he had very little control over his body, so that he was unable to signal to anyone in any way that he was again aware, listening, and wanting to communicate.

Eventually an attentive caretaker noticed that he seemed to want to communicate and she advocated for him to be evaluated as a potential AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) user. He was able to use eye gaze to prove that he could communicate, and eventually, with hard work and great passion, learned to use a few different AAC tools, including of course typing out his memoir of these experiences.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been reading Typed Words Loud Voices, a book of essays edited by Amy Sequenzia and Elizabeth J. Grace. It’s a slim volume out of Autonomous Press but I’ve been savoring it slowly. These essays (and a few poems) are all written by people who type to communicate; some are autistic, some are not, some are functionally non-speaking, some are partially non-speaking, and some speak most of the time but communicate better through typing than through talking. A common thread through these works is the experience of typed communication as freedom for the authors – freedom from the pain of being misunderstood.

A book review came out in The New Yorker last week that has set my mind on fire. In “Seeing the Spectrum,” Steven Shapin reviews the new book In A Different KeyThe Story of Autism, but he has a few choice editorial comments to make about autistic people himself. I’ll leave my thoughts on the book for another time as my copy is currently in the mail and I plan to read and review it fully.

One of Shapin’s remarks goes thusly: “It’s a searing experience to have a child who doesn’t talk, who doesn’t want to be touched, who self-harms, who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply, whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors.”

His choice of words here strikes me as notably harsh and hateful, but the truth is, the sentiment beneath them is far from original. The idea that having a child who does not speak or like certain kinds of touch is soulless and tragic is, unfortunately, not only not new – it’s terribly commonplace. Shapin, like everyone else who parrots this narrative, leaves aside the question of why such a child might self-harm, but let’s not.

A common straw man argument that people use against autistic adults who argue for acceptance is that we are not like those so-called low functioning children and therefore cannot speak for them or even about them with any credibility. This argument assumes quite a lot: it assumes, for one thing, that none of us are parents to autistic children. It assumes that none of us were once non-speaking children who were thought to be “low functioning.” It assumes that functioning is a set of two static, binary categories. And it assumes – and this is so important to point out – that none of the autistic activists fighting for acceptance and equality online, in articles, in blog posts, and on Twitter, is actually non-speaking themselves.

Shapin makes the absurd distinction that “the capacity for independent living is an important factor in whether an individual is held to be ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’.” I’ve also heard it said that the ability to hold a job is what qualifies an autistic person as high functioning. Of course, the ability to live on one’s own and hold a job are things that are only pathologized for disabled people, right? Lots of non-disabled people struggle with those things without being called low functioning.

If you stop to think for even a few seconds about what these labels mean, I think – I hope – you will see how little sense they make. Which label do you slap on a person who does not speak, needs significant daily live-in care, but can write a book? Which label do you slap on a person who speaks fluently, and lives alone, but relies on disability payments for income? I hope that it is obvious how arbitrary it is to qualify a human being’s “functionality” if you really consider it for a moment or two.

Of course, people like Shapin bolster their arguments by dismissing out of hand those who require assistance to use AAC – sometimes called “supported typing” or “facilitated communication” (FC). (The link in previous sentence goes to an awesome post on Unstrange Mind that includes videos of FC users in action.) FC was supposedly “debunked” in the 90s, but that research is now known to have been bad science, and there are many wonderful FC success stories, including that of Amy Sequenzia (co-editor of Typed Words mentioned above) and poet Tito Mukhopadhyay (one of the autistics featured in Spectrum: The Film). By dismissing both the autistics who speak and those who don’t but use assisted typing to communicate, the people who want to discredit the neurodiversity movement get us both coming and going.

Where am I going with this and how does it all relate? I want to return to Shapin’s statement about the searing experience, if you can bear to reread it: “It’s a searing experience to have a child who doesn’t talk, who doesn’t want to be touched, who self-harms, who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply, whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors.”

By dismissing the voices of those who type to communicate, by erasing the souls of children who do not talk, Shapin and others who perpetuate this kind of narrative dehumanize autistic people. Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the founder of ABA therapy whom Shapin extols in his piece, once said of autistic children, “You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense.” I hope that if you ponder it for even a moment, that quote runs a chill down your spine.

This dehumanization and dismissal of autistics as not-people, as not really there, as soulless, as without thought, is precisely the kind of story – the kind of lie – that leads to abuse and murder of autistic children and adults. We don’t have to speculate that such awful things could happen; they do happen, with disturbing regularity. What sorts of things would people, in their carelessness, callousness, and sometimes cruelty, do to a person whom they think is not really, in any practical sense, there?

Martin Pistorious tells us in Ghost Boy of the awful things that were done to him when he was unable to communicate. He was treated like a thing, like an annoyance, treated worse than an animal, when people viewed him as not-a-person simply because he could not speak.

Aaron Greenwood tells us in Typed Words, “i was never ok with being treated like i needed to change. it is a horrible reality only to have people in power treat you like an object only without asking you or respecting you.”

It’s inexcusable, inhumane, and utterly irrational to persist in the belief that people who don’t speak do not think, when over and over and over again – given access to some usable communication tool – they tell us that they do.

There’s a concept from Disability history called “the least dangerous assumption.” As applied to people with communication differences, including non-speaking autistics, it means that in a very real way, the least dangerous assumption parents, teachers, caregivers, and the public can make about a person who currently is not able to verbally communicate is that they have complex thoughts and feelings just like any other person, but are not yet able to express them.

What harm, after all, could be done by treating this person with respect and assuming that they do understand you, they do feel a wide range of emotions, they do have thoughts and opinions, and that the ways they do communicate – be it laughter, echolalia, screams, or even self-injury – are meaningful? At worst, they never do find a method of expressing their complex thoughts, but have been treated like a human being.

The most dangerous assumption, meanwhile, is that they don’t understand. Their eyes are not windows to any sort of soul. They are people in form but not in substance. Their communications are disregarded as meaningless or rudimentary. Imagine if, all along, a person treated this way understood absolutely everything they were told, understood that people underestimated not only their cognitive abilities but their very humanity, understood that they were seen as less than, damaged, or not even there. Imagine the danger to a soul viewed as soulless.

Imagine how you would feel in that person’s place. Would you feel angry? Would you want to scream? Would you lash out sometimes? Can you imagine something like an inner struggle to express rage without hurting other people that might lead you to self-harm?

The desire to be seen is perhaps the strongest craving in a human being. To simply be seen or heard by another person is the most basic level of communication; and I don’t mean seen literally with the eyes, or heard with the ears, but to be beheld by a fellow human by any means available. To know that you have managed to convey something of your unique self to another person both roots you to the world and frees you. Martin Pistorious did this with only the smallest movement of his eyes at first – and a person who was willing to see him. Aaron Greenwood (again from Typed Words) wrote of his “life’s longing to be part of this world.”

Everyone wants this: a place in the world. And everyone can have it, if we truly listen. 

Image is a photo of the Earth in space, as a background to the text in capital white letters: “Everyone can have this: a place in the wold. And everyone can have it, if we truly listen. eisforerin.com”

Uniquely Human: Book Review

Books, Neurodiversity

Image is the book cover for Uniquely Human by Barry M. Prizant, PhD.

Author Barry M. Prizant is a consultant and “autism expert” who works with the families of autistic children. His new book Uniquely Human is popular in the autism community right now because it proposes “a different way of seeing autism” (per the subtitle), which is that autistic people are not diseased or disordered, but, well, uniquely human.

I have so many mixed feelings about this book it’s hard to know how to approach it in a review or even in recommending it to people in casual conversation. Just looking at the book cover makes me feel a little sad because… is it really “different” to see autistic people as human? This book is striking a nerve with a lot of people, so obviously the answer is yes, this idea that autistic people are human beings who happen to experience the world differently from neurotypical people does sound like a revolutionary message to many readers. His message of compassion is revolutionary. His message that no one should try to extinguish “autistic behaviors” is revolutionary, to many people (not to most autistics, I can assure you).

As with Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, I would say that this is on the whole a good and useful book but there are some important critical points that I want to make about it, many of which are about language choices.

One comes up right in the Author’s Note at the beginning, which is about Prizant’s use of person first language (“person with autism”) versus identity first language (“autistic person”). Though he acknowledges that some (I would argue most) autistic people prefer identity first language, he chooses to use person first, without actually explaining why. I wish he had given some reason for this as I find it an odd choice coming from an expert who rejects the pathology model of autism (that is to say, rejects the notion that autism is a disease) and considers autistic people the real experts on autism. To me, “person with autism” always sounds like “person with a disease.” But oh well. Moving on.

Prizant rejects the idea that so-called “autistic behaviors” like flapping, rocking, echolalia (repeating words), spinning things, and so on are symptoms that should be extinguished, but instead are coping strategies to help an autistic person deal with an often overwhelming world. I totally agree with this and love that he says it, but I was little mystified that he also rejected the words “stim” and “stimming” for some of those actions. Those words were once part of the language of pathology but, like the word “autistic” itself, are now reclaimed words in the autistic community. I know lots of autistic people who enjoy talking about the joys of stimming. I felt that Prizant should know this if he really does put the experiences of autistic people first in his research.

Similarly, he rejects the word “obsessions” for the deep, specific interests that many autistic people experience. Again I appreciate that he is trying to move away from the language of pathology, but when replacing negative words I wish that he would use the words of autistic people. Instead, he replaces “obsessions” with a word coined by a parent of an autistic child: enthusiasms. Is it me or is that word a little patronizing? Can you imagine praising Nicolas Tesla for his “enthusiasms” in electricity and engineering? (Not saying many autistic people will be the next Tesla, but, y’know.) Most autistic people I know use words like interests, passions, special interests (another reclaimed phrase), or even – sure – obsessions.

There were other moments in this book when I felt that Prizant was sort of benevolently condescending toward autistic people – I won’t comb through and cite them all. It was just something that popped often enough to make this book problematic for me as a piece of advocacy.

And tying that into my larger qualms about both this book and NeuroTribes, as autistic advocate Judy Endow has written, these books by non-autistic authors and experts seem to be necessary to move the conversation on autism forward because the voices of autistic people are largely still not heard, respected, or trusted as sources of information on autism. That’s a problem and it bothers me. Still, I hold hands with allies knowing that we need them to help us make progress. (It reminds me of how Tim Wise talks in White Like Me about how some white people will only listen to truths about racial justice from other white people, like him, when really black people should be the authorities on their own civil rights, but… reality.)

Which brings me to the GOOD things about this book, in case you thought I wasn’t ever going to get there. Uniquely Human is, in essence, a humane way of seeing autism. Being autistic is a valid way of being and the autistic mind is part of human diversity. “Autistic behaviors” are never meaningless, and parents, teachers, and professionals’ jobs are not to eliminate them, but to understand the person behind them. I felt that Prizant was refreshingly bold in his indictment of autism professionals who do not work with the children in their care, but against them. And he was not Pollyannaish in his portrayals of what the lives of autistic people are like; I think in that regard he probably went a step further (in a good way) than Silberman in showing how autistic people face lifelong disabilities, and will need lifelong support in varying ways and degrees. Not all will become Silicon Valley tech geniuses, but all are valuable, because all are human.

As an operating manual for non-autistic people who care for autistic children, this is surely the best book on the market today. For anyone who is raising/teaching/caring for an autistic child, I would recommend you read this book and give it to everyone else in your life who regularly interacts with that child. But, as with NeuroTribes, after you read this I would highly recommend you move on to reading the words of actually autistic people too – you will learn so much. I am working on a new autistic references section of this blog, but in the meantime a few good places to start for parents and caregivers would be PACLA, Respectfully Connected, and We Are Like Your Child.

NeuroTribes Book Review

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity

I usually write book reviews in batches in my What Are You Reading? series, but I am dedicating a single blog post to NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman.

In the lead up to the book release, Silberman’s book was getting a lot of buzz in the press. It was featured or reviewed in The Atlantic, on NPR, the New York Times, The Guardian, Wired of course, he was interviewed for Forbes, did this great interview for Vox, I could go on but you get the picture. I read many of the articles and was so excited to read the book that I pre-ordered it, even though I am usually the kind of person who just waits for the public library to get it. The promise that he seemed to be making, that he had set out to dispel the common mythology of autism and present a more true and accurate picture of what autism is and who autistic people are, had me on pins and needles.

The background to the writing of this book is that Silberman himself is not autistic, but has been a writer for Wired magazine for years. In the 1990s he wrote a piece called The Geek Syndrome, which proved to be quite popular, about the apparent “epidemic” of autism in places like Silicon Valley. Warning if you want to go back and read that, it’s full of ableist language that made me cringe so hard I couldn’t get through it – it’s clear that Silberman’s come a long way in his view of autism since then. When he was researching that piece, he became curious about why there were so many autistic people in the tech community, and his research into that larger question eventually became Neurotribes.

The strength of this book is in clarifying the true history of autism research and “treatment” protocols (I put treatment in scare quotes because autism is not a disease therefore cannot actually be treated; nevertheless, plenty of people have tried). By far the strongest chapters were the ones on Asperger, Kanner, and Lovaas.

But let me explain, for those not familiar with those names. The popular mythology among non-autistics in the autism community (parents, professionals, doctors) is that in the 1930s there were two Viennese doctors, one in America (Kanner) and one in Austria (Asperger) who “discovered autism” at the same time. It’s been believed that Kanner found a group of children who were profoundly disabled, non verbal or nearly so, and so these children and others like them from then on were said to have “Kanner’s syndrome” which soon was called “classic autism.” Meanwhile, Asperger found a group of highly verbal, professorial and quirky children who didn’t relate well to peers but were quite clever. This type was supposedly lost for a few decades and eventually surfaced as “Asperger’s Syndrome,” sometimes called “high functioning autism.”

One of the reasons this narrative has been so compelling is that it has allowed many people to argue that children with “classic autism” should be cured or treated to help them become more “normal,” while children with “Asperger’s syndrome” are mostly just quirky and smart. Many people who push back against the neurodiversity movement have asserted that in fact we should probably just split these up into two completely diagnoses and not call them both autism.

Such arguments are the reason why Silberman’s new historical record of the history of autism research is so important to how we view autism today.

In NeuroTribes, Silberman reveals that Asperger in fact describes a whole range of abilities and disabilities in the children and teenagers that he saw in his clinic. He correctly perceived that these abilities and disabilities were intertwined, essential to the person, and lasted throughout their lives to varying degrees. He believed autism was “not rare,” once you knew what to look for. He also identified autistic traits in the parents of his patients, though curiously he believed he never met any autistic girls and surmised that perhaps female autism was something that set in during adolescence, since he believed he had met some autistic mothers.

(It is posited that this could be because his clinic/school was a place that children were sent after having behavioral problems in typical schools, a problem that autistic girls have somewhat less often than boys; I’d guess it’s because autism in girls is poorly understood in general.)

One of the most fascinating details of this history is that in 1938 when Asperger gave his first and last public talk at University on his research into autistic children, the environment in Vienna at the time was one in which there was tremendous pressure to fall into step with the Nazi regime. For psychologists like Asperger and his staff, that meant participating in the genocide of disabled children, a program that this book went into in heartbreaking detail. By the end of this chapter I was weeping as I read.

Because of that dangerous atmosphere in 1930s Austria, Silberman asserts that Asperger put a spin on his research in order to emphasize the gifts and societal contributions that certain of his patients had to offer, outlining the case studies of four highly intelligent and scientifically gifted boys who had some minor social difficulties. Because Asperger had elsewhere written of the vast “continuum” of autistic traits, it is reasonable to assume that he was quite deliberate in “pitching” the strengths of a few in his clinic to save all of the children in his care.

After that talk, Asperger’s research was subsumed by World War 2 and tainted by a perceived association with Nazi eugenics, buried for decades. When it finally resurfaced in the early 1990s, his portrait of autism had become skewed to resemble what we now call “Asperger’s syndrome.”

What was happening in the US at the time was that Kanner, another Viennese psychologist who had come to America earlier, was also doing research on autistic children. Kanner had trained to be a general practice doctor and found a convenient back door entry into psychology (basically a clinic said “we need a psychologist, you’re hired”) that gave him a case of Imposter Syndrome. Silberman argues that Kanner was thus driven to establish himself as a person of importance in the field, and that is why he established criteria for autism that was narrow and specific enough to ensure that it would be considered a condition both rare and severe.

The crucial missing link that Silberman discovered was that Kanner hired as part of his clinical staff two former staffers from Asperger’s clinic – most notably, Georg Frankl, Asperger’s chief diagnostician. Despite this connection, Kanner never mentioned Asperger’s work in his papers, claiming the credit for discovering autism himself, and Frankl and Weiss apparently never spoke up either (Silberman implies that they may have kept silent because they owed Kanner their lives after he helped them escape Austria and obtain work visas in the US).

Kanner went on to establish autism as a specific diagnosis for children he believed should be institutionalized throughout their lives, in part because he blamed their parents, particularly “refrigerator mothers,” for what he saw as a severe mental illness in young children. Oddly enough, though he characterized this disease as “infantile autism,” he did not theorize, research, or even seem to wonder what happened as the children grew up – I suppose because they were institutionalized and forgotten by society. In my view, this left a conceptual vacuum in which later generations of parents could insert all manner of theories about toxins, causes, and quackery about cures and treatments that would “recover” their children from this “disease.”

Other key chapters of the book detail the history of how parent groups came to dominate the field of autism research and public awareness, much to the detriment of autistic children in most cases. Bernie Rimland was a big figure in that particular history as an early proponent of toxicity theories, biomed treatments, and what is known in the autistic community as “curebie” talk. Though his son grew up to be a happy, healthy autistic man with a full life, Bernie Rimland to his dying day expressed that he wished above all for his son to just “be normal.”

The chapter on the history of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis, still the most popular therapy for autistic children) was also heart wrenching as Silberman laid out the work of its founder, Ivar Lovaas. Lovaas believed that autistic children literally were not people – that they were essentially human bodies without humanity. His work focused on shaping their behaviors in order to make them appear more like typical children, which he argued was the only way they could learn anything at all, often using harsh punishments such as electric shocks. His work is associated with the equally horrifying work of George Rekers, who used Lovaas’s techniques to try to cure young boys of “sissy boy syndrome.”

And of course, there are the crucial points in time when the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) expand their definitions of autism in the 80s, and then add Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS in the 90s (only to remove them in 2014), which, coupled with better educational standards and services, gives rise to the supposed, mythological, totally nonexistent “autism epidemic” of modern times.

These are the dark annals of autism history that autistic people usually know, while many parents and professionals do not or choose not to think about. So I was appreciative of Silberman bringing them to the light of day, and to a wide audience.

The rest of the book was rather weak.

That may be overly harsh, but when it came to actually showing his readership who autistic people are, how we experience the world, and what we need from society, the work just wasn’t there, which felt joltingly anticlimactic after the incredible detail of his research on Asperger, Kanner, and Lovaas.

I was baffled by the fact that there were entire chapters on ham radio operators and the making of Rain Man (NOT even based on an autistic person, gah!!), and almost nothing on autistic girls or women. Just as Silberman went through the history books to find famous male autistics like Henry Cavendish and Paul Dirac, couldn’t he have dug through and found even one autistic woman? I know that there were female ham radio operators and science fiction geeks in the 1960s, but none are mentioned. The only female autistic to get any play is of course Temple Grandin, whom frankly most autistic women are pretty tired of, because she is always the token Lady Autistic when in fact most of us don’t relate to her that much at all. I could name a number of more interesting and relatable and important autistic people who are NOT men off the top of my head, from Donna Williams (mentioned, but only briefly), to Cynthia Kim, to Lydia Brown (mentioned but that’s it), to Amy Sequenzia (how is she not in this book?), Ibby Grace, and more.

Also frustrating for me was that Silberman focused so much on tech, science, and math geeks in his autistic profiles. Newsflash, not all autistic people are into STEM. I do find those people interesting, sure, but autistic people are also writers, artists, social activists, teachers, therapists, parents, and many other things. I know Silberman is a tech writer and that’s his thing, but it’s misleading to focus on that one wedge of autistic interests to the exclusion of all others.

Furthermore, I was greatly disappointed in how he emphasized the autistic people who are geniuses, inventors, and people who change the world. Even when he profiled people who were pronounced “low functioning” as children, he chose to highlight the individuals who went on to demonstrate genius IQs or special abilities. The fact is, many other autistic people live ordinary lives, and many need a lot of lifelong support.

I was so disillusioned to realize that Silberman was never going to get around to pointing out that it is NOT the material achievements a person is capable of that make them worthwhile as people. This trope that autistic children are worthy of love because they have the potential to be brilliant engineers is so harmful. It leaves the door open for non-autistic adults to try to “recover” them and make them “more normal” while they are young, and it leaves disabled teens and adults who AREN’T brilliant scientists (and let’s face it, most people don’t turn out to be brilliant scientists) out in the cold without a place in society.

That is not autistic acceptance. In this way NeuroTribes fell far, far short of what I was hoping for.

I was left with the strange suspicion that Silberman was in fact reenacting a version of Asperger’s 1938 University of Vienna talk in which he emphasized the gifted autistics to an audience of genocidal eugenicists. Did he consciously, or maybe unconsciously, pitch us a package of autistic geniuses because his main audience is so antagonistic toward autism that he felt this was the only way to reach them? This might be the case, but in the end, for me, it’s not good enough.

Even so, and this may sound inconsistent, I would still highly recommend the book to everyone, absolutely everyone. The history here needs to be common knowledge. And when you are done with NeuroTribes, I suggest you visit Autonomous Press, where autistic people are publishing the work of autistic authors, to round out your reading.

What Are You Reading? Graphic Memoir Edition

Books

tomboy

 

Image is the cover of Tomboy by Liz Prince: a cartoon drawing of wood background and a blue rectangle similar to a bathroom sign, with the symbol of a female body and a frowning girl’s face. Underneath the symbol are the words “Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince.”

I love graphic memoirs. I love reading them and I want to write one. I’m totally obsessed with getting my hands on any and all graphic memoirs I can find. Pat Grant, (whose graphic novel Blue I actually didn’t love all that much), has written beautifully on how comics are such a perfect medium for telling the stories of one’s childhood and adolescence – they evoke the language of that era of life, tapping straight into the feelings of youth in a visceral and immediate way. These are a few graphic memoirs that I have loved in the last few months.

(This post contains affiliate links.)

* Tomboy by Liz Prince. This is a delightful memoir that’s so funny and genuine and endearing that I just wanted to give it a big hug. Prince tells an edgy but sweet tale of growing up not feeling like other girls, but also not like a boy – she endures confusion, bullying, and lots of social awkwardness as she tries to find her place in the world and figure out who she really is. As she finds her niche in the world of zines and comic artists and finds other people who both defy gender roles and accept her as she is, she learns that gender is more complicated than just being a boy or a girl, and that’s a good thing. Though this may sound like heavy or academic fare, Prince’s gift is her ability to handle big questions with humor and a down to earth charm. Ultimately this book is just about feeling comfortable with being yourself.

* I Was a Child by Bruce Eric Kaplan. I admit I am stretching the boundaries of the term graphic memoir by including this – it really isn’t one. It’s a memoir with small cartoon illustrations on each page. But I feel like I can shoehorn it in because it’s about the kind of material that graphic memoirists use – the important images and scenes from the author’s childhood – and also because Kaplan is a cartoonist, better known as the New Yorker’s BEK. The stories in this book are incredibly stripped down, raw, visceral – as are the illustrations, which look like someone scribbled them in the dark on the inside of a paperback after waking from a vivid dream. It’s hilarious, it’s weird, it’s uncanny. Definitely my favorite of everything I’ve read so far this year.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier. This graphic memoir geared toward the kid/tween age range is immensely popular, and it’s easy to see why. The drawings are super cute and the story manages to be both unique and highly relatable. In the beginning of the memoir, Raina falls and severely injures her two front teeth, which kicks off a very long series of awful, painful, and embarrassing dental work, right at the time when all kids are pretty much at their peak of self consciousness: middle school. I personally have an extreme fear of dentistry (don’t ask me when’s the last time I went), so this read like a horror novel for me, but the tone is so sweet and funny that it entertained even an odontophobe like me (yes I googled that).

A Game for Swallowsby Zeina Abirached. In a memoir about life during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 80s, Zeina relates the story of a day when her parents go out for a short visit to the other side of Beirut and don’t come home for hours – during that worrying time, her neighbors gather in her apartment to comfort her and her brother, and each other, during the bombing. The artwork and the setting are heavily reminiscent of Persepolis – it’s nearly impossible not to make the comparison immediately – but I think that the tone is markedly different, both in the drawings and the storytelling. Abirached has a style that is whimsical and fairy-tale-like, almost reminding me at times of Tomi de Paola’s children’s books. She gives you a feel for the warmth of Lebanese culture that makes you feel as the children must, cozy and cared for in a safe little nest away from the dangerous world outside.

What Are You Reading?

Books

This batch of reviews is a weird mix of YA fiction and spiritual nonfiction. Guess that’s where I’m at right now! Adding a note at the top to tell you that if you really want to delve into a delicious smorgasbord of book reviews, my friend Kristine is doing her annual 12 Days of Christmas review at The Suburban Prairie, and this year she’s individually reviewing ALL of the books she read in 2014! Loving it!

* Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy Book 1) by Sarah Rees Brennan. This was the last pick for the Curtain and Pen online book club – a supernatural-themed YA novel, first in a trilogy. Set in a small town in England called Sorry-in-the-Vale, the story follows a high school girl named Kami as she sets about unraveling the mysteries of her home town, the strange Lynburn family who seem to hold some inexplicable power over the residents, and her own paranormal connection to a boy named Jared. The characters in this were maybe a little cartoonish, but felt original and appealing. Brennan did a great job of maintaining suspense about various plot lines while still creating twists that seemed logical. I found the relationship between Kami and Jared to be the most interesting storyline and the cliffhanger absolutely shocked me. I have the next book lined up in my reading queue. Also, Brennan was interacting with us on Twitter during our book club discussion – she is an active and friendly tweeter!

* Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life by Karen Maezen Miller. I love Karen Maezen Miller for the way she shows readers that ordinary life not only can be, but is, a spiritual practice. Her book about motherhood, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, is one of my favorite books ever and one of the few books I have read more than once. In this one she writes more about her personal life, her path toward Buddhism, the messy years when she was lost and lonely and what she learned along the way. Miller has a lovely, relatable way of explaining that we are all messy and lost and lonely and that’s all right. We are right where we are supposed to be. This is not a set of steps to follow to attain enlightenment – if only it were so simple, as the title playfully teases. There were many times during the book when I thought, okay, I think I’ve got it, do I need to keep reading? but then I would and be surprised once again by another simple and beautiful truth. Highly recommend.

* Raging Star (Dust Lands) by Moira Young. I can’t seem to stop reading YA trilogies, even though they always seem to disappoint in the end. I still really like the central character of Saba, because she is believably flawed, selfish, romantic, a risk taker, a little confused. The trouble is, this last book also felt confused to me. A lot of threads were left dangling in the emotional storyline, though the plot was tied up pretty neatly. Some of the characters did things that just didn’t make a lot of sense to me – DeMalo and Jack both seemed rather baffling in this installment – and others who intrigued me never really went anywhere – like Auriel Tai and Emmi. I am not sure whether to recommend this series or not; I still think the first book was great, and so after you read that you might as well read the rest, but prepare to end on a huh?

* Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich. This book KNOCKED MY SOCKS OFF. I actually feel like writing the entire review in caps lock. I have loved Ehrenreich for years – ever since her 2002 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which she investigated and wrote about the lives of the working poor by living and working alongside them – and I’ve read everything she’s written. So when I heard that her new book was a personal memoir about her adolescence, atheism, and grappling with the meaning of life, I was practically salivating to get my hands on it. I almost could not make it through this book because after every page I wanted to throw it down and scream with excitement; you see, I could relate so closely to her teenage ponderings it was rocking my world to realize that there was someone out there who was as strange as me at age 15. When I was finally done I went back to my old journals, some of which I’ve kept in digital form, and found several things that were similar to what Ehrenreich had described (though certainly she was a far better and more intelligent writer). I will say, though, that even though I ADORE this book, it’s a weird one and I can see why many people will just find it too odd to love.

What Are You Reading? YA Edition

Books

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler. Best known for his Lemony Snicket children’s books, Handler here is writing as a female first person narrator for a YA audience. The device, or perhaps gimmick, of the tale is that Min is sorting through a box of mementos from her relationship with ex-boyfriend Ed, while composing a letter to him about, of course, why they broke up. Each item begins a new chapter that triggers a memory, and each of these chapter begins with a painting of said item. I actually found these illustrations to be the weakest part of the book and I frequently wished they weren’t there – which maybe is a case of me being too “trained” in illustration, because I was taught that an illustration should always add something to the text and not simply depict what’s written in a literal way. I kept looking for them to add some other clue or layer of meaning to the story, but they were just pictures of objects and by the end I felt they kind of cheapened the writing. My other complaint was that I sometimes found the dialogue a bit too witty to be believed. But what won me over is that this story painted a wonderfully, awkwardly, painfully accurate picture of what being a teenager is like in matters of love. All the misunderstandings, casual hurts, and intoxicating hopefulness of teen love were there, and that’s why I liked this book.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young. An adventure story set in a post-apocalyptic future, this is the first book in a trilogy about a gritty teenage heroine named Saba. The setting is a kind of sci-fi tinged wild west, and the book is written in a twangy dialect that took me some time to get used to – in fact, for a while I wasn’t sure I was going to. But as the action picked up, the dialect writing faded to where I could just hear it as Saba’s voice. With a futuristic dystopian backdrop and a bow and arrow slinging heroine, it’s obvious why this might be compared with Hunger Games, but I found its world to be more intriguingly complex, its storyline more epic, its love story sexier and more appealing. Though it started off slow for me, as soon as I finished reading the last sentence of Blood Red Road I jumped on my public library app and reserved the sequel.

Sekret by Lindsay Smith. This book came highly recommended by my friend Christina of Allodoxophobia and the premise drew me right in: Sekret takes place in Soviet Russia in the 1960s and involves a group of teenage psychics being trained by the KGB as spies. I have to point out that this novel is a perfect example of why the YA genre really should be taken seriously by adult readers – far from being a churned out slew of Twilight copycats, it’s full of inventive and original storytelling. I did have a hard time with the long descriptive passages in the book, but I’m not sure if I was just not in the right frame of mind to focus on them, or if the setting of Soviet Russia was just too foreign to envision. But overall I thought the concept, story, and characters were compelling and unique, and this was a thriller that kept me guessing at every turn.

Rebel Heart by Moira Young. In the second book of Young’s Dust Lands trilogy, the dialect writing was instantly invisible to me, which was nice. It hard to review book two without spoiling book one – well, without spoilers in general, I guess – but it seems to me that the middle work of a trilogy either is a total knockout that takes advantage of its relative freedom (it doesn’t have to set things up nor wrap them up) to be bold and creative (see Star Wars) or it’s a kind of plodding bridge trying to get from point A to point B (see Catching Fire). This, unfortunately, seemed like the latter. There were some good new characters and a KERRR-AAAAZY plot twist (!!!! that better go somewhere good!) but over all it fell a little flat for me.

What Are You Reading?

Books

I’ve read so many great books since I last wrote a book review post that I’m going to have to break them into two posts – so stay tuned for an upcoming YA Edition. Lately I’ve just been swimming in lists of books I want to read and also stacks of library books all over the house, both non fiction and fiction.

How Children Learn by John Holt. I wish I had read this book long ago – in fact I think it would be much more useful for all expectant parents to read this than to read pregnancy guides and infant care manuals! Although John Holt is known as a pioneer of the unschooling movement, you don’t have to be interested in unschooling or homeschooling at all to enjoy and reap the benefits of this particular work (some of his others are more pointedly anti-school). It is based on his extensive observations of young children (as a 5th grade teacher and as a friend) and engagingly outlines his view that young children learn as naturally as they breathe and as joyfully as they play. The chapters on talking and reading were particularly delightful; the only area where I would quarrel with him is on his view of fantasy play. He asserts that children’s natural fantasies are about being adults, and they only play at princesses and superheroes because they are targeted by adult television and movie creators. This to me seemed more like a side effect of cultural beliefs about the evils of TV and not a genuine observation – after all, storytelling is as old as human language. Before there was TV there were books, and before that raconteurs. I wonder if he would change his view if he were alive today (he died in 1985).

Landline by Rainbow Rowell. In this novel about a successful comedy writer and her troubled marriage, there is a contrived narrative device that fuels the story, but Rowell’s writing is charming and honest enough to pull it off. She paints a picture of a relationship that feels real and relatable. One of most interesting things about the book for me was how I was not entirely sure who to root for, so to speak, as the story unfolded. This is Rowell’s strength – the way she balances writing characters who are truly flawed and sometimes annoy you, infuriate you, or do bad things, and yet she gets you to care about them enough to forgive and maybe even love them. Though her stories are simple and straightforward, her characters stay with you forever because they feel like real people whom you actually once knew. The only Rowell novel left for me to read is Attachments, and I look forward to it.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. The story of Louisa Clark, a cafe waitress turned caregiver for a quadriplegic man, and Will Traynor, the man in her care who once was a hotshot corporate exec and thrill seeker and now lives confined to a motorized wheelchair. I would have been wary of this novel based merely on the description – wouldn’t it be sentimental and icky? – but I picked it up because all of my Goodreads friends gave it rave reviews. Indeed this turned out to be a book that I could hardly put down once I picked it up. I had the distinct feeling that Moyes probably researched this book by immersing herself in quad support groups online (I suspected the scenes of Lou’s own online research included a head nod or two to actual people Moyes had chatted with). She treats the subject of Will’s disability with raw honesty, and I felt the ending was deeply satisfying.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell. It’s rare for me to not finish a book, but I only made it halfway through this one. Woodrell is perhaps best known for his novel Winter’s Bone, which was made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – however, I doubt I’ll get to reading that any time soon. I found his writing style to be so off putting that, even though I enjoyed the characters and was intrigued by the plot (who burned down the dance hall and killed and maimed dozens of people?), I could not plow all the way through the story. There is a bit of an emperor-has-no-clothes feeling for me when I see how highly rated this book is on Goodreads, like am I just not smart enough to like it? I balked against his frequent use of passive voice, long winding sentences, and use of commas seemingly more to break up run on sentences into chunks than to give them actual grammatical structure. But I suppose it’s just a style preference. There is a rhythm to his writing, almost poetic, that to me obscures the narrative completely but to other may be enjoyable.