Rules

by Cynthia Lord (2006)

An Intermediate and Middle School selection.

“How else can hopes go, but up?”

Rules is a book that begins as girl caring for her autistic brother. It is heartfelt and witty, a story that celebrates people’s differences and personal introspection and asks the question: What does normal really look like?

We empathize right away with the protagonist, Catherine, who regularly has to take care of her younger brother, David. She devises clever and creative techniques to help him navigate the world.  She writes out a set of “rules” in order to help David, from “No toys in the fish tank” to “Keep your pants on in public.” She uses a secret language to help calm him down, quoting lines from Frog and Toad like, “Frog, you are looking quite green,” knowing David will be able to quote her back.  But all this work and responsibility can sometimes be a burden for Catherine, who also wants to be noticed and make her own friendships outside of her family.

“I wish everyone had the same chances. Because it stinks a big one that they don’t.”

Readers will enjoy and admire Catherine’s perceptive care of her brother and will feel for her as she attempts to make friends with the new girl next door. But Rules really takes off and becomes special when she meets Jason at her brother’s occupational therapy clinic. Jason uses a wheelchair for mobility and a word board for communication. When Catherine – who can draw – offers to create new “words” for Jason’s communication board, this Newbery Honor book explores a whole new level of empathy and understanding.  (The first three words Catherine gives Jason are “awesome,” “gross,” and “stinks a big one.” How can a friendship not grow from that?)

Catherine’s changing desires and the dilemmas she navigates are ones all school-age readers will identify with.  We feel for her when she invites Kristi, the new girl, to go swimming, and Kristi doesn’t appreciate the lake they way Catherine does. (“Are you kidding? It’s freezing!”) We laugh with her as she listens to Jason rail against the doctors and aides who don’t truly understand what’s in his head. (“Stupid. Speech. Woman.”) And we thrill with her when she takes Jason racing out of the clinic to the parking lot so he can “feel what it’s like to run.”

“One more time?” asks Jason.  And we’re off!  Seagulls billowing into the air at every turn.

Rules is a classic intermediate title, richly accessible to an upper elementary school audience, yet sensitive and insightful enough for middle school readers. It presents finely-drawn, three-dimensional characters in a story that is at once eye-opening and familiar, inviting readers to take a closer look at relationships and what defines ability. As Catherine tells us, “Looking closer can make something beautiful.”

X