Vivy Cohen is an 11-year-old knuckleball pitcher. See, three years ago, she met the great VJ Capello, her hero, who showed her the knuckleball hold, and she’s been practicing it ever since. She’s gotten pretty good and even gets herself on a team! Her mom isn’t quite so enthusiastic, because she’s afraid to let Vivy do things that are risky, either physically or socially, since Vivy has autism and needs to work on her social skills. Part of that is going to social skills group, which she hates, but one assignment the kids get is to write to their hero. Of course she chooses VJ Capello, who to her surprise writes her back! This begins a correspondence that carries the whole epistolary novel. Mostly they talk about pitching, but also Vivy’s family, including her brother (spoiler alert: he comes out as gay), and her best friend, who is also the catcher on the team she plays for. When Vivy gets pretty seriously hurt, her mom bans her from playing and her great challenge is to convince her. The way she finally does (oops, I mean, spoiler alert) was a little surprising and gratifying – everyone in the story grows a little as a result: mom, dad, Vivy, even VJ, but nothing comes of the coach’s son bullying her. One additional aspect to the story is that VJ is Black and has some reflections on being a Black knuckleball pitcher, a minority of minorities, in a sense.
I won’t make the mistake again (see the comments) of claiming that an author who is writing about an autistic character is not themselves autistic, but it is not clearly the case whether Kapit is autistic or not. So the jury is out on the authenticity of the experience, though it certainly felt very real from an outsider’s perspective, especially the descriptions of Vivy’s emotional meltdowns and her hand flapping of excitement, even if Vivy seemed a bit too in tune with others’ body language and with her own mental process. Regardless, Kapit certainly has down the non-autistic adults in Vivy’s life, especially her mom, who arguably does the most growing. One argument that Vivy makes about making her own decisions is that next year she will have a Bat Mitzvah and “doesn’t that mean something? I think that it should.”
12-year-old Ellie is actually excited to move from Kentucky to her grandparents’ home in Oklahoma with her mom, except for the whole starting a new school thing. But that goes well and soon she even has friends! Coralee, who lives next door, and Bert, a boy with mild autism, who stick together because, as Coralee points out, they are all different because they live in the trailer park.
Ellie and her mom have moved to help out with Ellie’s grandfather, who has dementia. He gets himself into various scrapes, including a final episode that clinches his move into assisted living with Mema in which he is in a lot of real danger. Ellie has very fond memories of vacations in Oklahoma and doesn’t want to leave when her mother determines that her new school isn’t adequately meeting her needs with being wheelchair-friendly and providing an aide. It doesn’t hurt that Ellie hates having an aide, or that she finally has the best PT of her life in her gym teacher, Hutch (who it is hinted that Ellie’s mom has a crush on). There’s also a subplot with Ellie’s dad and his “shiny new family” and who makes up for not spending time with Ellie by sending her expensive presents like an iPad. Ellie also loves to bake, which reminded me of the Dirt Diary series and Pie in the Sky.
12-year-old Nova is missing her sister, who promised to return before the space shuttle Challenger launches with Christa McAuliffe aboard. As Nova and her newest foster family count down the days until the launch, she writes her sister letters, telling her all about her new family, her new school, and how much she’s looking forward to seeing her sister again. The letters are never mailed, and even if they were, they’re illegible – Nova is autistic and nonverbal (though she can talk a little and make herself understood at times) and her writing “looks like chicken scratches.”
Nova’s foster parents are the only ones outside of her sister who ever knew how smart she was, how she can read and has a rich inner life. She’s obsessed with astronomy and could have answered questions from her special astronomy elective teacher if she’d had a way to communicate. One of her special ed classmates speaks sign language, and I found myself wondering why Nova didn’t. But it’s 1986 and it’s enough of a challenge to get the school to realize she can read.
Nova and her sister had previously lived in many different foster homes since being taken away from their mentally ill mother (possibly schizophrenia is hinted at) when Nova was 5. Their grand plan was to run away once Bridget turned 18 and could take care of them. But now Bridget is gone and Nova doesn’t know where. When the launch comes and goes (with disastrous results), Nova finally comes to terms with the truth about where her sister has gone and what it means for her.
Panteleakos has worked in special education with experience in the foster care world, and has Aspberger’s herself (see comments below). She has a list of credentials as long as my arm and also did a ton of research with other experts.
The one caveat for me was that I would have liked the full lyrics to David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” which she quotes throughout the story (sometimes creating significant parts of the plot), which I only sort of know, and which was running around in pieces in my head the whole time.
Emma is about to start fifth grade at her local public school, which she has never attended before. She’s been homeschooled, as had her brother until recently. Emma misses her brother and laments how he’s changed, though they are clearly still close. On her first day of school, Emma is put in a group with two girls who she wants to befriend and Jack, an autistic boy, who she sort of wants to befriend and also sort of doesn’t. Emma is not put off by Jack’s unusual mannerisms and, though she would prefer to work with the two girls, she enjoys working with Jack when they devise a plan to force Emma and Jack to do their part alone. Emma’s internal conflict arises when she feels she has to treat Jack poorly in or attempt to get to know the other kids. She eventually figures out that she can both stick up for him and make new friends in a new school, which seems tragically idealistic and didn’t quite ring true to me.
Despite that, I really enjoyed this book. I had it as an audiobook over the long weekend here in the U.S. and zipped right through it on my road trip (as opposed to You Go First which I had to stop listening to because the reader’s voice was way too annoying when she was voicing the annoying girl). I read it at the request of my boss and we agreed that, as the parent of an autistic child, Lord seems to have found a groove there, but we are wary of parents-as-experts not necessarily being the best resource. Our basis for this is the Light it Up Blue autism awareness campaign, run by Autism Speaks, which has come under scrutiny for not including voices of actual autistic people. The critique is that it’s an organization made of parents and other people who have autistic people in their lives, but do not include autistic people in their leadership and, more than that, sometimes say hurtful things. In contrast, the Autism Self-Advocacy Network is just what it sounds like, and their tag line is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Keeping in mind that sometimes even parents of autistic children can make missteps, the boss and I were wondering how an autistic person would review this book. Until that happens, I’ll rank it high, with caveats.
12-year-old Summer and her family are harvesters. They normally spend the summer harvesting wheat all over the central plains, but her parents are called back to Japan for an emergency. This leaves Summer and her brother, Jaz, in the care of their grandparents, who then have to take on the harvesting work so they can make ends meet. Summer is convinced that her family is doomed to bad luck, what with the emergency, her grandparents’ physical problems, and starting with her own life-threatening bout of malaria the year before. After the malaria, Summer developed a deep fear of mosquitoes and bathes in DEET all the time. This is also the first year that Summer has a crush on her grandparents’ employers’ son, Robbie. This particular summer, she spends most of her time helping her grandmother cook for the harvesters and doing the homework that her teachers gave her in advance so she doesn’t fall behind. She also has to look after her little brother, Jaz, who has autism and deal with her complicated relationship with her grandmother, who is either all critical (usually) or all loving (rarely). All in all, it’s an eventful couple of months and she does a lot of growing up, even eventually pitching in to drive one of the combines when her grandfather is sick. This book was very quiet and I loved how Summer came to her own realizations. She never addressed her challenges with her grandmother, but felt that she understood her, so maybe their relationship will get better. Despite her grandmother’s criticism, Summer doesn’t seem to feel a lack of respect for her. I liked that not everything gets 100% resolved in the end but that I was still left with a hopeful feeling, and a feeling of realistic progress in her life.