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Posts Tagged ‘books for young people about disabilities

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.

How would you rate this book?

BethanyCrandellAccording to her bio, Bethany and her husband Terry live in San Diego with their two daughters and a chocolate Labrador who has no consideration for personal space. She writes Young Adult novels, eats too much guacamole, and is still waiting for Jake Ryan to show up at her door. She’s also always open for a chat and so a few weeks ago I emailed her some questions. Enjoy the interview!


ALLISON: What is your most memorable childhood memory?

BETHANY: Just to clarify, you said most memorable not most embarrassing, right? ‘Cause that’s a fine line that’s been crossed a lot of times in my life–heh!

Okay, there are actually a ton of memories coming to mind right now, but one that stands out is when one of my older sisters and I decided to use the garden hose and a mound of backyard dirt to turn ourselves into human mud pies and then traipse through the house while rubbing our nasty, mucky selves against the walls. No big surprise that my mom was not happy with us. We spent a lot of time scrubbing that day. And soothing our sore butts that night.

ALLISON: How did you survive being a teenager?

BETHANY: I think I swore a lot.

ALLISON: You’re obsessed with John Hughes. Me too! Which film is your favorite?

BETHANY: *sighs* I feel like I should light a candle or something. What a perfectly divine question.

Most days I’d say SIXTEEN CANDLES because of… Jake Ryan!, but then there are those days, usually when I’m irritable and funneling M&Ms by the bagful, where THE BREAKFAST CLUB would take the honor.

ALLISON: How about books? Is there an author with whom you’re obsessed?

BETHANY: I’m the world’s most promiscuous reader. I tend to fall in love with whoever I’m reading and then move on to the next. I am obsessed with voice though, particularly when it comes to contemporary books, so that’s always something that keeps me coming back for more. I just read, THE ONE THING (Disney Sept. 2015), by debut author Marci Lyn Curtis, and…dang. I could easily obsess over her. She captures sarcasm and wit so effortlessly I found myself suffering from a severe case of writer envy. (There’s a string of Twitter DMs to the author to prove it.) Also I recently discovered Anne Eliot—again, she weaves teen angst into her story so seamlessly I wonder if she isn’t channeling Mr. Hughes while she sits at her keyboard.


ALLISON: Why do you write?

BETHANY: The voices in my head need to tell their stories. Either I put them down on paper or I wear a white jacket with extra-long sleeves. I’m too messy to wear white so….

ALLISON: What inspired Summer on the Short Bus?

BETHANY: Because we live in a very politically correct world, sometimes to the detriment of being true to ourselves and building honest relationships with each other, I wanted to see what would happen when an honest character threw PC out the window and tackled a sometimes-taboo topic without any reservations. The response has been pretty interesting.

ALLISON: You draw on your own experiences of being a parent of a special-needs child. What advice would you offer to other authors who also might want to feature a character with special needs?

BETHANY: Treat them the same as you would any other character. “Special” only describes the care a differently-abled person requires it doesn’t void their need to have authentic, honest relationships.

ALLISON: Why young adult as opposed to another age group?

BETHANY: The short answer: John Hughes made me do it.

The not-quite-as-short answer: YA is all about feels and firsts. It’s about frustration and angst, self-discovery and growth. Yes, the teenage years can be rough, but it’s also the one time in your life when you’re allowed to be an idiot and get away with it–because you’re learning. For me, those firsts are too good to pass up on a regular basis.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will get from your book?

BETHANY: A good laugh, some legitimate feels, and maybe a little perspective on what it really means to live life honestly.

A young boy with Aspergers. A mystery. An English author. These descriptors all might seem as I’m talking about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Instead I’ve just finished reading The London Eye Mystery, a book that Siobhan Dowd delayed publishing due to Haddon’s book bursting on the scene. Her book is as well-written and thought-provoking as the rest of her titles, as well as simply being a fun romp.

Main character, Ted, isn’t your typical kid. I’m not just saying that because he has Aspergers and so has a brain that “runs on its own unique operating system”. In the fiction that I’ve read so far which has featured a young person who falls on the autism spectrum, the common traits run along these lines: struggles in social situations, lacks empathy, becomes easily overwhelmed to the point of aggression, prefers the logical and literal, misunderstands anything figurative, and excels in math and/or language skills. Ted is different.

While Ted’s strength is not communication, that lies with his sister, Ted does know how to read basic facial expressions. He also knows ways to adapt himself to social situations including laughing at jokes—even when he doesn’t understand them. Indeed, no matter which trait you look at, Ted seems to have figured out the proper way to act in the majority of situations. For example, when his brain gets overwhelmed by trying to figure out where his cousin has disappeared, he jumps up and down on his bed as if it were a trampoline or escapes into the family back garden to clear his mind. Never once does he have a tantrum or any other form of meltdown. In addition, instead of disliking figurative language, Ted ponders what each new phrase means and even shares favorites with readers. What most stood out to me about Ted is his atypical obsession, that of weather, which actually helps him solve the London Eye mystery.

Speaking of mysteries…. I like the one in this novel that is aimed at young people from ages 8-12. Granted, the mystery isn’t terribly complicated, even though Ted comes up with nine theories about the whereabouts of his cousin who never returned from his round-trip on the London Eye. Like me, you’ll probably figure out at least the first half of the mystery before or around the same time as Ted. The fun really isn’t in staying in the dark, but in seeing Ted and his sister bond as they track down the mysterious stranger who gave their cousin a free ticket to ride on the London Eye, and in watching Ted learn to overcome the challenges of his Aspergers when he needs to confront his parents, relatives, and even strangers while on the trail for clues. To her credit, Dowd also throws in a few twists and turns to the mystery that just might keep you guessing until the reveal.

As with many fine novels, it took time for me to like The London Eye Mystery. Once I did, however, I discovered there were several scenes to savor. One is when the Ted’s family learns that a body similar to that of his missing cousin has shown up. In the time it takes for the dad to drive to and from the morgue, Ted comes face-to-face with death in a moving moment. “I realized it was real. I would die one day. Kat would die one day. Mum would die. Dad would die…. Of course, I’d known about death before. But during those fifty-four minutes I really knew it.” Ted’s thoughts even lead to God. Unlike the main character of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time who is an atheist, Ted stays open to the idea that God might exist. Ted also feels confused and scared, traits not always portrayed in characters who fall on the Autism spectrum.

Dowd had apparently planned The London Eye Mystery as the first in a series. Especially because of how she explored disability as a gift, it’s unfortunate that there will be not be any sequels. In 2007, three months after being named one of 25 ‘authors of the future,’ Dowd died of breast cancer. Prior to her death, Dowd published four novels for young people, all of which I highly recommend.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

I recently found myself talking to the book I was reading. It was the award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Initially, I merely pondered inwardly whether the main character was an accurate depiction of autism. However, as startling developments started to unfold, I began to rant outwardly to the characters about their choices, their beliefs, their actions. It’s been awhile since a book got under my skin like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Having first read the book many years ago, I elected to reread The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time when I discovered it had won the Dolly Gray Award in 2004. This is an award given to recognize authors whose book for young people appropriately portrays individuals with developmental disabilities. In Curious Incident, Christopher is a fifteen-year-old with autism who discovers a murdered dog and, later, some letters from his dead mother. I liked that mysteries and relationships were at the forefront of a novel which also happened to feature a main character with developmental disabilities.

My research into Mark Haddon revealed that most critics bought into his depiction of autism, but some felt Haddon relied on stereotypes. In a sense he does: Christopher has a photographic memory and is a mathematical genius. Even though the first ability does explain how Christopher could find his way to London on his own, its under-use fails to justify the cliché. In contrast, mathematical ability seems an integral part of Christopher, in the same way that Rose’s obsession with homonyms felt natural in Rain Reign. Moreover, there also aren’t many novels where an excellence in math receives respect and so, even though I didn’t understand half of it, I found the math a refreshing change of pace.

In another sense, Haddon took traits which are true of many of who fall on the autism spectrum and reinvented them to fit Christopher and thereby created a complex character. For example, Christopher determines whether a day is good or bad by the number and color of cars he sees. In addition, Christopher makes a point of telling white lies, when it fits his needs. Case in point, Christopher constantly figures out ways to keep investigating the dead dog’s murder long after his father has expressing forbidden the search.

As for the startling developments that prompted my verbal exclamations, I can’t talk too much about them without spoiling the plot. What I can tell you is that at times Christopher annoyed me. If he sees the world in pictures, he feels that the rest of us are deprived because we don’t. This feels downright arrogant. The neighbor whose dog got killed also irritated me. At one moment, she’s giving comfort to the dad when Christopher’s mom disappears. The next moment, she’s telling Christopher not to come around. Why the 180 degree turn, lady? I also felt frustrated by Christopher’s dad, who kept too many secrets from Christopher. At times I felt real anger towards these characters. Christopher blatantly disregards the pain of others to insist on taking A-Level math exams, even though he could take them another year. As for the dad, despite being Christopher’s sole protector he ends up making Christopher terrified of him. Yet as much as I disliked these characters at times, they also felt like real human beings just trying to make sense of the mixed-up life handed to them. For that reason, I also had to love them.

Because The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time got under my skin, I knew my review wasn’t going to be a typical analysis of plot, character, and setting. Instead it’s just my visceral reaction to the characters. For example, I tired of how Christopher constantly needed to disprove the existence of God. Science has just as many unanswered questions as religion. (Yes, I admit that I am biased. Then again, so is the author.) At the same time, I empathized with Christopher’s need for structure. Although he could, with a great amount of effort, keep himself calm in the face of enormous stress, his mind could also actually start to fail him to the point that even everyday signs appeared as gibberish. My reactions would be less extreme, but I do greatly relate to how he feels.

Not a typical mystery or even realistic fiction, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a book that will get you thinking and talking about a wide variety of topics. What is it like to be autistic? How does one deal with a pain that doesn’t go away? Should one rebuild trust in a broken relationship? Whatever your responses, I can guarantee The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will not be soon forgotten.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Although Mark Haddon has received other writing recognition, his most notable claim is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In 2003, he won the Book Trust Teenage Prize, Whitbread Book of the Year, and Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A year later, he won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book, and Los Angeles Times book award for first fiction for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The list goes on. Tomorrow I’ll review this highly-acclaimed novel. Save the date: April 3!


MarkHaddonBorn in England in 1962, Haddon wasn’t much of a reader as a child. He tells Guardian that the little he did read, he doesn’t really remember. He attended Uppingham School and Merton College, both in Oxford, where he studied English.

When talking about why he became a writer, Haddon declares to Guardian that he was born too late for steam trains and a lazy eye meant he would never be an astronaut. Instead he aspired to be a palaeoanthropologist, excavating Australopithecus bones in northern Kenya. Somehow this translated to him reading books about chemistry and how cars worked and life on the ocean floor.

When then did he decide to become a writer? According to Haddon, he never really did, but instead for him “Writing is like being gay. You finally admit that this is who you are, you come out and hope that no one runs away.” Yet Haddon also acknowledges to Guardian about reading R.S. Thomas at 14 (‘Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,/ Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,/ Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud’) and being astonished that someone could arrange these perfectly ordinary words in a way that did amazing things to the inside of his head. Since that time, Haddon has spent most of his life trying to understand that mystery and trying to give other people the experience he had.

After college, Haddon worked part-time in a theater box office and in a mail order business. He explored different occupations too. One included working with people with disabilities, specifically those with multiple sclerosis and autism. For creative venues, he created illustrations and cartoons for magazines, as well as wrote children’s television series. He even took up painting and selling abstract art.

Wikipedia notes that Haddon describes himself as a “hard-line atheist,” when asked if he’s like the main character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but he’s also apparently always asking himself the big questions: Where did we come from? Is there a meaning to all of this? While Haddon has read the Bible, he asserts that science and literature are what give him answers.

Haddon resides in Oxford with his wife. They have two young sons. When not writing, he likes to cook vegetarian.


Years before The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time gave him bestseller status, Haddon wrote his first children’s book, Gilbert’s Gobstopper, in 1987. This was followed by many other children’s books, including his series of Agent Z books, which even inspired a 1996 Children’s BBC sitcom. Haddon admits to Guardian that he made this choice, partly because he thought writing children’s books would be an easy task. He soon learned the difference, but also recognizes that such a choice gave him a stern apprenticeship.

What is remarkable about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is it represents the first book that Haddon wrote intentionally for an adult audience. After having written more than a dozen books for children over the years, he wanted to write about more complex themes. Notable Biographies quotes Haddon as saying, the resulting novel “was definitely for adults, but maybe I should say more specifically: it was for myself. I’ve been writing for kids for a long time, and if you’re writing for kids you’re kind of writing for the kid you used to be at that age. I felt a great sense of freedom with this book because I felt like I was writing it for me.” In presenting the final manuscript to his agent, however, it was decided that it would be marketed to both an adult and a teenage audience. It was even published in two identical editions with different covers, one for adults and one for teenagers, and its success astonished everyone.

According to Notable Biographies, the idea for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came from an image in Haddon’s mind of a poodle that had been killed by a gardening implement. Haddon thought beginning a novel this way could be funny, but in order to make it work he would have to tell the incident from a unique viewpoint. “The dog came first, then the voice. Only after a few pages did I really start to ask, ‘Who does the voice belong to?’ So Christopher came along, in fact, after the book had already got underway.”

Notable Biographies writes that what interested many reviewers is that even though Christopher has autism, Haddon in no way makes this the theme of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Indeed, the word “autism” is never even used. As noted above, Haddon has worked with autistic people. Beyond that, he admits to doing very little formal research when creating the character of Christopher.

Another question Haddon shares with Guardian is that he has been regularly asked over the past year is what models he had in mind when writing Curious Incident. The answer is Pride and Prejudice. He notes that “Jane Austen was writing about boring people with desperately limited lives. Her heroines were bound by iron rules about what they could do, where they could go and what they could say…. Yet Jane Austen writes about these humdrum lives with such empathy that they seem endlessly fascinating. And her first act of empathy is to write about them in the kind of book these woman would themselves read.” This is apparently what Haddon’s what tried to do with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

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