Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘reviews about books for young people

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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