Monday, July 27, 2009

This story is Anything but Typical

While I was recently in NYC, I stopped by a wonderful children's bookstore called Books of Wonder. While there, Munmun, one of the managers plied me with book after book. By far and away, my favorite was Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin.

Anything but Typical revolves around the main character, Jason Blake. He is an autistic 12 year old boy, who lives in a neurotypical world (translated, that means people who do not have problems neurologically). He has a mom, a dad, and a younger brother, but this story is not told from their perspective; it is told from Jason's. And since he is autistic, he tries to tell the story in first person (which is the neurotypical way), but sometimes he reverts to talking about himself in third person.

As if middle school wasn't difficult enough to navigate, imagine being Jason. The social cues that most people can pick up on are like a foreign language for Jason. He had a special ed aide the previous year that taught him to say, "I am okay just as I am."

These words are hard for him when he has also been taught:

"Look people in the eye when you are talking (even if this makes it harder for you to listen).

Talk, even when you have nothing to say (that's what NTs do all the time).

Try to ignore everything else around you (even when those things may be important).

If possible put your head and your body back together and try very hard not to shake or flap or twirl or twitch (even if it makes you feel worse to do this)."

As you can see, the world he lives in is very confusing for Jason. But, the one place he feels in control is when he composes stories on his computer using a program called Storyboard. This program allows other readers to read stories in progress and comment on them. This is where he meets someone named "PhoenixBird" who loves his most recent story. And, from one of her comments, he realizes that PhoenixBird is a girl. They actually start a correspondence using Storyboard, and they seem to really hit if off with one another. Jason can say things using a keyboard that he would have great difficulty saying verbally.

This relationship proceeds, and he even finds out that PhoenixBird has a name. Her name is Rebecca. He rushes home each day, eager to see what message Rebecca might leave for him. All is good until Jason's parents surprise him with a trip to the Storyboard conference in Texas. He may miss some social cues, but he is savvy enough to realize that his computer persona is much different than the one he will present in person. Worse yet, Rebecca will be at the conference, too. Even though he was excited about going to the conference in the beginning, he begins to worry nonstop about it, and hopes somehow he won't have to go. In the end, he goes and both good and disappointing things happen at the conference.

Jason doesn't have any friends at school, but there is Aaron Miller, a boy who always has a kind word for Jason and will stand up for him when others make fun of him. When Aaron sees Jason eating alone, he is quick to invite Jason to sit with him. Aaron even listens to a story Jason tells him about (the same one he is writing on Storyboard), and is very generous with his compliments when Jason is done. I couldn't help wishing that more children were as kind and empathetic to students with differences as Aaron was.

Other characters of note: Jason's mom who seems to be in a perpetually sad state, Jason's dad who is a dad that just wants the best for his son, and Jeremy, Jason's younger brother. Jeremy stands out for me because even though he is younger, he is both protective and understanding of Jason. Jeremy is the person who comes the closest to being able to make Jason smile.

I would have to say that I think Anything but Typical should be a must-read for all teachers. As inclusion becomes more prevalent, it is important for us as teachers to be aware of how difficult the typical school day is for students like Jason. We need to be more empathetic and understanding.

Another huge value for Anything but Typical would be to read this aloud with an entire class or encourage a group to read it for a Book Club discussion. The conversations would be amazing, and hopefully enlightening as well.

Jason is a character that has gotten under my skin and into my heart, days after I closed the back flap of the book. This book has been out since March, and I can't believe I haven't heard about it before now. It's amazing. I will be forever grateful to Munmun at Books of Wonder for handing me Anything but Typical!!!


  1. I read it too, and thought it was very well done. I was thinking it should be required reading for teacher education classes.

  2. I'm going to run the premise of this book by the district folk at the autism class I'm taking next week. I go back and forth between thinking that Jason seems to have access to WAY too much language to be autistic and the fact that autism is a SPECTRUM disorder and every child is different. My two most severely autistic students so far had lots of his behaviors (flapping, vocalizing, perseverating), but NONE of his ability to communicate. (And who knows WHAT is going on inside their heads???)

    And then there's the issue, as there is in multicultural books, of whether or not a person who is not from that culture, who is not themselves autistic, can write an authentic book. But then we could nit pick to the extreme and say that men can't create women characters and vice versa.

    I'm babbling.

    I liked it, but I'm still not sure. Beth gave me another one (ARC) that has an autistic main character: MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD. Read and discuss?

  3. ML - You make some good points. I don't know the answer, but I thought she did a great job with the frustration of Jason. I did have one such child at Bailey many moons ago. I'm starting to understand his mom a little more because of this book.

    As far as Marcello goes, I had just read about this somewhere and heard good things. Read and discuss sounds good to me!

  4. I think I will try to track this book down. I haven't seen it. Thank you for the suggestion, Karen.

  5. Sounds intriguing, I'd like to take a look at it. (But first I have to finish reading GRAPES OF WRATH, which is so great I can hardly believe it.)

    Re: Mary Lee. Sometimes a fiction can bring us closer to a truth, even if the author of that fiction cannot authentically KNOW that greater truth. In the end, you can only try to express the "truth" of that fictional character.

    Does that make sense?

    And likewise, sometimes it's all flapdoodle and we throw the book against the wall, screaming.

    I love this blog!!!

  6. This was a very great book! It was inspiring! Recommended: ages 10 and up.

  7. I am almost done reading this book, and it's been wonderful reading it. I am reading it because, I am going to middle school this year, and I need to do a project on a book. So, therefor I need to read it. But I don't regret reading it. I♥Anything but Typical. ☺

  8. I found this book in my school library. I just so happened to be in middle school. I loved it.

  9. The strength of this novel is its ability to develop empathy in inclusion classes for autistic classmates whose behavior may be difficult to interpret.

  10. This novel was very disappointing as throughout the entire book I was very confused.