I’ve just read three books about kids with different ways of perceiving the world, and because they’re thematically linked (also to catch up on reviews quicker) I’ll review two together: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, and Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin.
Al Capone, my favorite of the two, takes place on Alcatraz in 1935, when guards’ families lived on the island. (I have a bit of a prison thing — any closed society, really — so I was all over this premise. Also my students have been recommending the book to me for years.) Moose has just moved to the island with his father, mother, and sister Natalie. Natalie has an undiagnosed mental disability (she would probably be diagnosed with fairly low-functioning autism today). Their mother, obsessed with curing her, has sent her to every quack she could find. Now they’ve moved to San Francisco so Natalie can attend a school for special-needs kids.
But she doesn’t get in. So Moose’s mother insists that Moose come straight home from school every day on the ferry and take Natalie around the island with him and the handful of other island kids. Moose is initially grumpy about Natalie cramping his style, but the extra interaction does turn out to help both Natalie and Moose.
I made that description mostly about Natalie, but there’s a lot more going on for Moose: the Warden’s daughter Piper, who’s way too much trouble to be as cute as she is. His new friends at school and their regular baseball games. His relationships with his parents. All are handled with humor and sensitivity, and despite the historical setting the whole thing feels like it could have happened yesterday. This is a book that happens to have an autistic character, not an Austism Problem Novel.
Anything But Typical, on the other hand, is definitely a one-trick pony. Jason, the narrator, is far higher functioning than Natalie — he is “mainstreamed” in school, though he finds a lot of challenges there now that he’s denied his one-on-one assistant. His favorite thing in the world is Storyboard, the forum to which he posts his short stories. He strikes up a correspondence with PhoenixBird, which turns into an online friendship. When Jason’s parents surprise him with a trip to a Storyboard convention, he’s terrified of meeting PhoenixBird — will she still be his friend or even his girlfriend, or will she ditch him once she sees how “weird” he is?
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that she reacts with some distance when they meet — the book would be wildly unrealistic if she didn’t. Jason’s life is pretty tough in some ways. He doesn’t understand what people expect of him or how to give it, but he wants to please them; he wants the kind of relationships “neurotypicals” have. The “uplifting” ending has him proud of his unusual mind, but one definitely gets the sense that he’s going to go through that cycle (as we all do, I guess) many times before adulthood.
This is a solid story that provides a good perspective on autism from the inside (with the caveat, of course, that autism varies widely, so no one should take this as The Way the Autistic Mind Works). My favorite part was reading the descriptions of Jason’s inventive stories, somewhere between magical realism and fable. But overall, it didn’t particularly grab me — there just wasn’t enough depth. (On the other hand, gorgeous cover!)