Author: Cynthia Lord
Illustrator: None noted
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: 2006
Catherine is a twelve-year old girl who longs for a normal life, to have friends come over and to do things as a family without the potential embarrassment that comes with having an autistic younger brother. She even keeps a rule book to help her brother David learn how to behave, but he is constantly forgetting the rules. This summer, Catherine has a chance with a new friend as a girl her age is moving in next door. Catherine also makes a new friend named Jason who is confined to a wheel chair and talks with a communication board. Her love of drawing assists her as she adds new, more expressive vocabulary cards to his book, such as ‘whatever’. Catherine’s embarrassment over both her brother’s disability and Jason’s shocks her into questioning her own definition of normal.
Rules by Cynthia Lord is a study in character development as 12-year-old Catherine learns that being different is okay. Catherine longs for a normal life. Her brother, David, has autism. Having a brother like David definitely affects Catherine’s life in more ways than just competing for her parent’s attention. David makes it difficult to have friends. He can be ‘embarrassing.” Catherine’s best friend is in California with her father for the summer, so when a new girl moves in across the street, Catherine is excited yet nervous, too. What if David does something to embarrass her?
Catherine keeps a rule book for David to teach him the simple ‘rules’ of life such as, “A boy can take off his shirt to swim but not his shorts,” or “Flush!” Each chapter is centered on one of her rules, and others are interspersed within the chapter itself. David often forgets the rules such as “Late doesn’t mean not coming.” As David and Catherine are waiting outside for their father to get home by 5:00, they are counting cars to pass the time. None of the cars belong to his father. In his anxiety, David flaps his hands and screams a quote from Frog and Toad Together by Lobel, “The whole world is covered with buttons and not one of them is mine!” “I jump up to stop his hands, flapping now like two fierce and angry birds.” This is bad timing. From her porch, the new neighbor girl asks, “Is he okay?” and offers to help look for his button. How do you explain the rule, “If you need to borrow words, Arnold Lobel wrote some good ones.”? The girl goes back in without a ‘Hi’ or an exchange of names.
One afternoon as Catherine was fishing a Barbie doll out of the fish tank (“No toys in the fish tank!”), the new girl waves at her through the window. David does not like to get wet. When Catherine looks back at David, his pants are down around his feet. She quickly closes the curtains. “Pantless brothers are not my problem.” Sometimes Catherine has her own rules.
When her mother wants to invite the new neighbors over for a barbecue, Catherine doesn’t want David to be there. “...It’s hard enough to make new friends without worrying he’ll do something embarrassing.” Later, Catherine lies to her mom saying the neighbors were busy and couldn’t come. “How can his outside look so normal and his inside be so broken? Like an apple, red perfect on the outside, but mushy brown at the first bite.”
Even with all the embarrassment that David brings into her life, Catherine still defends him against people who tease him and helps him cope by teaching him life rules. “I feel like I’m ripping in half. One half wanting to run away and be a regular person with my friends, but my other half is scared to leave David because he can’t make it on his own.”
Not only is Catherine learning to deal with her conflicting emotions about her brother, she also has to learn to accept the differences her new friend Jason brings with him. One of the children in the therapy clinic is a 14 or 15 year old boy named Jason. He is wheelchair bound and can only ‘talk’ using a communication board, a book with picture/word vocabulary cards. Catherine never knows where to look at him. “Maybe by drawing Jason, I could look at him easier,” but Jason doesn’t want to be drawn. “Girl don’t,” he points at his board.
When the therapist very loudly asks and signs how he is doing, his mother tells her he is upset because he couldn’t get a guitar he wants. The therapist points at his board and says, “Sad.” Catherine thinks he needs better cards like “Get out of my face!” and “Go away!” and “This stinks a big one!” She tells Jason she is sorry about the guitar and gives him a picture she drew. Over the summer Catherine’s friendship with Jason grows as she makes more expressive vocabulary cards for him to use.
Despite their friendship, Catherine is still embarrassed about Jason’s disability. One time at the therapist’s office, Jason tells her about wanting to know what it feels like to run. Catherine jokingly offers to push him around the parking lot really fast. Jason accepts. “My smile freezes.” She tries to come up with excuses, but takes him outside anyway. “People are looking, but I try not to see them as real, just statues to run past.” When she stops, she notices a number of people watching with their mouths open. Some of them cheer. “One more time?” she asks Jason.
After Jason gets a motorized wheelchair, they walk to the beach. “...My ears are full of the sound of Jason’s wheelchair and the silence of people who suddenly stop talking as we pass.” When Catherine hears the new girl Kristi’s voice up ahead, she ducks down pretending to tie her shoe until Kristi is gone. She hasn’t told Kristi about Jason’s disability.
At Jason’s birthday party, Jason asks her to go with him to the dance. She says she can’t. Jason asks her if she is embarrassed about him. “I’m just a horrible dancer. Terrible. In fact, I’m so bad I even have a rule against it. No dancing unless I’m alone in my room or it’s pitch-black dark.” “RULE. Stupid. Excuse,” Jason points. Catherine tells her mother later, “...people stare. Or they hurry away, and I know what they’re thinking.... I get so sick of it.” “Just because other people think something, that doesn’t make it true,” her mother answers.
The turning point is on the night of the dance. Catherine decides to go, just in case Jason goes, too. She even treats her brother to some grape soda rather than pushing him out the door with her father. When Jason arrives, she asks to talk to him in private. Catherine gives Jason a card, “COMPLICATED.” The way people look around David, like he’s invisible, “makes me mad, because it’s mean and it makes me invisible, too.” Another card says, “Hidden,” and Catherine confesses about not telling Kristi about Jason because, “I was scared what she might think of me, not you. You’re a good friend, and I’ve been—.” Card number three says, “Weak.”
When Kristi and her friend Ryan appear, Catherine introduces them and apologizes to Kristi for not telling her more about Jason. After Kristi leaves, not looking at Catherine on the way out, Catherine offers one more card to Jason, “Guilty.” He doesn’t want it. Instead, he asks her to dance. She accepts his offer, just as she accepts his differences.
That night, Catherine has to rescue another toy from the fish tank. “...Other things matter, too. Like sharing something small and special, just my brother and me. Kneeling beside David, our arms touching, our faces reflect side by side, in the glass. I let that be enough.” Catherine is learning that being different is not something to be embarrassed about. Different is just ... different.
Booklist (February 15, 2006) “The details of autistic behavior are handled well, as are depictions of relationships.... A heartwarming first novel.” (Gr. 4-7)
Kirkus Review (March 1, 2006) “Catherine is an appealing and believable character, acutely self-conscious and torn between her love for her brother and her resentment of his special needs. Middle-grade readers will recognize her longing for acceptance and be intrigued by this exploration of dealing with differences.” (9-12)
Library Media Connection (October 2006) “This is a great book to help students gain some understanding about autism, while also providing a good read.”
Publishers Weekly (April 17, 2006) “The appealing, credible narrator at the heart of Lord’s debut novel will draw in readers, as she struggles to find order and balance in her life.... A rewarding story that may well inspire readers to think about others’ points of view.” (Ages 9-12)
School Library Journal (April 1, 2006) “Lord has candidly captured the delicate dynamics in a family that revolves around a child’s disability. Set in coastal Maine, this sensitive story is about being different, feeling different, and finding acceptance.” (Gr. 4-7)
KidPost Book of the Week, Washington Post (4/16/06)
Read On Wisconsin, Middle-School Pick 2006
Newbery Honor Medal 2007
Schneider Family Book Award 2007
ALA Notable Children’s Book 2007
Maine Student Book Award 2007-2008
Great Stone Face Award (NH) 2007-2008
Mitten Award (Michigan Library Association) 2008
Kentucky Bluegrass Award 2008
Buckeye Children’s Book Award (OH) 2008
Children’s Book Award (RI) 2008
Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee 2008-2009
Great Lakes Great Books Award (Michigan) 2008-2009
Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award 2009
New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing (Spring 2009)
Nutmeg Children’s Book Award 2010
Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts (NCTE)
Book of the Week, CCBC
Editors’ Pick, HW Wilson Standard Catalog
This is a great opportunity to learn more about autism and other disabilities. A is for Autism, F is for Friend: a Kid’s Book on Making Friends with a Child Who has Autism by Joanna L. Keating-Velasco (2007) is for students in grades 3-8 and is published by Autism Asperger Publications. All About My Brother: an Eight-Year-Old Sister’s Introduction of her Brother Who has Autism by Sarah Peralta (2002) is for kindergarten through 3rd graders and shows a loving relationship between a sister and her non-verbal, autistic younger brother. Other nonfiction books and series for students from grades 3-8 that deal with autism and other disabilities include: Autism by Toney Allman (2010) from the Diseases and Disorders series by Lucent Books, Autism by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (2005), Autism by Marlene Targ Brill (2008) from the Health Alert series by Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone with Autism by Ellen Sabin (2006), Autism and Me: Sibling Stories by Ouisie Shapiro (2009), and How to Deal with Autism by Lynette Robbins (2010) from the Kids’ Health series by PowerKids Press.
Two picture books you may want to read are Ian’s Walk: a Story about Autism by Laurie Lears (1998) and Nathan’s Wish: a Story about Cerebral Palsy by Laurie Lears (2005). Both are from the point of view of the disabled child and are part of the Concept Books published by Whitman.
Some helpful websites are: Autism Society of America with its article on sibling issues (http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=life_fam_sibling), Autism Resources (http://www.autism-resources.com/) which also has a list of children’s autism books (http://www.autism-resources.com/books-children.html), and KidsHealth Organization has information on autism (http://kidshealth.org/kid/health_problems/brain/autism.html) and other disabilities (use the search feature). A Google videos search for “autism” and for “autism siblings” provides many opportunities to view information on autism in a video format from people who deal with the disability on a daily basis and from medical professional for more in-depth explanations.