Politically-incorrect humor can miss its mark. For that reason, the reviews for Summer on the Short Bus are understandably mixed. Myself, I enjoyed the characters, setting, and lessons learned in Bethany Crandell’s debut young adult novel. As a special education teacher, I especially enjoyed her honesty about special needs youth.
When I first discovered that Camp I Can was the last place in the world that Cricket wanted to be AND that the attendees of Camp I Can were those with disabilities, I outwardly groaned at the cliché setup. Indeed, reviewers rightfully point out that the latter at least partly serve as Cricket’s teachable moments. Yet…. as Cricket’s story unfolded, I gained a strong appreciation for how Crandell portrayed her. Cricket sounds so believably rich. She’s used to plush living quarters, pedicures, and bell service, along with fathers who cave when she cries and lawyers who bail her out of every tight situation. I could easily hate Cricket, except she’s also capable of getting embarrassed, flustered, and being disappointed. In other words, she has a heart. And so I find myself wanting to know what type of person will Cricket grow into because of two weeks at a camp she’s been sentenced to by her father.
As for those special needs campers, despite what the critics say, I’m not so sure that they’re one-dimensional. First, there’s Claire. She’s fascinated by vampires and especially the Twilight movies, watches every episode of American Idol, and mercilessly teases others about love interests. According to Cricket’s observations, her face also looks like that of a dog and her personality is clingy like a leech. Next, there’s Meredith. She wears pigtails, carts around Hannah Montana accessories, and swims better than anyone at camp. She also talks funny and accidentally runs over Cricket’s hand with a wheelchair. Then there’s Aidan. He’s what the camp counselors label a drop-in camper. Although he doesn’t have intellectual disabilities like the others, his spinal cord is severed. He’s also thinking of a field in special education. Finally, there’s Sam, the camp cook. He remembers everything about what interests him. What doesn’t interest him tends to go in one ear and out the other. Oh, and he’s autistic, which means his Madonna collection just might be the biggest in the world. All of these secondary characters seem to me to have a reasonable mix of strengths, weaknesses, and quirkiness.
The preference today tends to be for authors who write about characters with disabilities to feature them as main characters. Although I normally belong to that bandwagon, Crandell convinces me through her flippant humor that there’s still room for stories where those with special needs instead round out the character list. Indeed, some of my favorite moments from Summer on the Short Bus actually need that setup for them to work. For example, there are the socials that equalize everyone. At one movie night, Claire sees Cricket shedding tears after the camp watches Karate Kid, which leads to a teasing fest, and to shared laughter. Everyone gets so hysterical that one of the counselors nearly pees his pants and sneaks off to change. At one pool afternoon, five of the campers sports “a bikini made of less fabric that the one standing beside it” and talk about needing to get beautiful. Claire even blubbers about not being able to wait to play Marco Polo with some guy, while Cricket hopes her own outfit with catch the attention of a certain hot camper.
There are also the frank conversations between the camp counselors. Admittedly, these could be construed as just more teachable moments. For me as a special education teacher, however, I found myself feeling kinship with the counselors. For example, during one evening hike, the counselors share what had been their first awkward moments around special needs youth. Fantine recalls referring to them as “pumpkin heads” in a phone call with her cousin, but becoming protective when Meredith broke her arm a few days. Colin admits to once operating under an “us” versus “them” mentality, until the disabled kids themselves orchestrated a trick on him involving his attitude towards a drop-in-camper’s handicap. Another time, when Cricket is sharing details of the performance that Claire and Meredith will perform for the battle of the bands, Fantine asks how she let them talk her into it. Cricket admits to feeling that she felt obliged due to Meredith’s cerebral palsy. Fantine wastes no time in saying, “Something really good must have happened to her five years ago, because she doesn’t want to get herself out of the time warp. But I assure you, there’s no condition causing that. It’s a straight up WTF….”
Author Bethany Crandell herself has a daughter with a disability and has drawn on this background. I believe Summer on the Short Bus is as much a story about what it means to be differently-abled, as it is to work with those with special needs. The result is a fresh and original novel.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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