by Cynthia Lord (2006)
Read to Them is making a concerted effort to add what we call ‘tweener titles – books that can be read by a wide elementary school audience but can also reach and stimulate middle school readers. Old titles like Island of the Blue Dolphins and fresh new titles like The One and Only Ivan and Wonder accomplish this dramatically. Not everyone will want to share these rich, daring stories with all their elementary school families. But many do and many more will.
We now add Rules to this slowly growing pantheon. A favorite of librarians and upper grade and middle school teachers, Rules looks at first blush like it’s ‘just’ about a girl and her autistic brother. But it turns out to be far more than that. It turns out to be literature.
Lord is a lovely writer. She has a great eye. Describing a Barbie doll immersed in a fish tank: “Barbie’s pink-lipstick smile beams through the water; her long hair floating around her like a tangle of white-blond kelp.” But she can also turn an emotional phrase into a source of wisdom, sometimes profound – “Looking closer can make something more beautiful” – sometimes funny – “Pantless brothers are not my problem.”
In Rules we empathize right away with the protagonist, Catherine, as we learn how she has come to devise techniques to help her brother navigate the world. She writes them down as rules for him to understand a world of ambiguity with black and white clarity. But such wisdom and responsibility is a burden on a middle school child trying to negotiate her own way with her peers.
The rules as written down are a source of insight and study. Catherine is always writing down and sharing new ones and any school reading Rules will want to explore them and encourage students to write down their own rules.
Catherine’s insight into her brother is a premise of the novel, our first window in Catherine. But Rules really takes off and becomes special when she meets Jason at her brother’s Occupational Therapy clinic. Jason is disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Jason can’t talk. But when Catherine – who can draw – offers to create new “words” for Jason’s communication board – Rules enters a whole new realm of communication and sharing and feeling. It soars and touches and sears readers to the core. It will give families and schools plenty to talk about – siblings, peer groups, and feelings. It will help foster a conversation about what’s truly important and how to prioritize your priorities.
We encourage every school to take a rich look at Rules and imagine its rich possibilities for your school and families.