Tag Archives: Mark Haddon

In a minority

I need to disagree with Simon Mason. At least, I think I do. His review in Saturday’s Guardian of Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine wasn’t terribly favourable. That’s fine. For all its merits, Mockingbird wasn’t my favourite aspie book, either. But as an aspie book, it is of interest to me. It has a job to do, and I believe it does.

I suspect Simon ‘only’ reviewed Mockingbird as he would any other book, and he’s probably right to do so. You shouldn’t be more positive about a novel featuring black characters only for that reason. Nor should you get a black reviewer in to ‘do it justice.’ So my feeling that the Guardian would have been better to ask Charlotte Moore is possibly also wrong.

But then I was wrong back in the infancy of Bookwitch when I produced a list – soon followed by a second list – of aspie books (and ultimately a blog in the Guardian). I imagined they were for normal people wanting to read up on aspies or enjoy a novel featuring people who are different in some respect. I felt there was more to aspie literature than Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident. There is, and if reviewers of aspie books will insist on harking back to Curious Incident and compare unfavourably, then I will end up resenting Mark’s wonderful novel.

My own epiphany back in 2007 was that aspies actively look for – and don’t often find – books about themselves. There is a need, and it needs to be filled. Mockingbird does that. So do many other aspie novels. They might not be great literature, because they are often written out of a sense of need and desperation. Unless we can commission top authors to write aspie books as though they were writing one of their ‘normal’ novels, we have to be happy with what we’ve got.

Simon’s is a neurotypical review. It doesn’t allow for the need for aspie books, nor that top writers don’t ‘go there.’ For children’s needs, and especially British children’s reading needs, I want a Jacqueline Wilson book with a main character who has Asperger Syndrome. Not the best friend or the sibling, but the main character.

Once or twice I have suggested to authors I admire that they’d do many readers a favour by incorporating aspie characters in their books. Usually the response is that they know too little (research!), and why don’t I write one myself? That, of course, is what many aspie authors have ended up doing.

Most of my aspie novels are American. Simon is right; there is a difference between our two countries. So far the US appears to have been better for aspie children. A recent suggestion for changing the law means that they will soon have it as bad as we do here.

There are one or two inaccuracies in Simon’s review. Maybe they don’t matter. Although I think they do. Too fast reading of the book is what I’m thinking. Caitlin isn’t into video games. She likes videos. The games were mentioned as part of her ‘conducting small talk.’ The way she talks about her brother is because her Dad fell to pieces and seems not to respond to her. Devon didn’t go to Caitlin’s school, so wasn’t killed there. The lack of colour could constitute a possible angle of aspie life. Caitlin is surprisingly good at drawing. I don’t think her drawing has to be the passion Simon expects it to be.

OK, I’m being petty. But I’d rather a book like this was pulled to shreds for the right reasons. In some ways I wonder why the Guardian bothered reviewing Mockingbird at all. I think it’s important. But I would rather they picked a book which a reviewer could wholeheartedly recommend. Until Carnegie level authors write aspie books, we need to nurture the ones we get. The books still have a value.

Costa 2010

I was quite pleased to hear that the poet Jo Shapcott has won the 2010 Costa award for her collection Of Mutability. Not that I read much poetry, but I do enjoy seeing one of the least expected-to-do-well books doing just fine. And I imagine the prize money will come in handy for Jo.

With my children’s books hat on, I have to say that I would like the children’s book to win rather more often than the once it has happened so far. But great read though Out of Shadows was, I doubted that it and Jason Wallace would be able to beat all those popular adult books.

Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability

Had a quick look through the list of past winners, and I can only claim to have read three of them; The Amber Spyglass and The Curious Incident, both well before the award, and then I celebrated the start of Bookwitch by reading The Tenderness of Wolves. That was the year when I had a spy at the awards ceremony, with Adèle Geras as one of the judges, reporting back on what everyone wore and who said what, and so on.

Anyone out there who can do a full review of the ladies’ dresses? No, I didn’t think so.

Hmm, just had a thought. I had been invited to lunch with Jason Wallace for today. I had to decline, since lunching in London too often becomes both tiring and expensive. But maybe he’d have been able to do the clothes report? Or perhaps not. Maybe it was other questions his publishers had in mind. (Like what will he do with the £5000?)

Relevant expertise

When you know something, should you point it out? That’s more or less what Monica Edinger asked recently on her Educating Alice blog.

I have complained in the past about people who don’t know their own limitations, but this is the reverse. Do you need to state your credentials? And if so, when?

We’re already having an Aspie kind of week, and as this was prompted by a review of an Aspie book, I thought I’d mention it. I find I sort of agree with the reviewer that I’d like to know if an author has specialist knowledge of the topic of their book. But I’m not sure why. As is frequently pointed out by authors; they are meant to be good at making things up.

I have at least once written to a publisher – I’m almost blushing – asking for information about an unknown author. Despite the relevant novel being really good, there were a few things that made me so uncomfortable that I needed to find out why the author had made what I thought were mistakes.

I frequently set my teenage novels in Los Angeles. That’s the novels I started as a teenager and which usually ran to a couple of pages. Los Angeles must have seemed glamorous, and it’s a certain sign I watched too many American television series. Knowing absolutely nothing about LA, the stories would have been abysmally bad.

Even compiling my list of Aspie books here on Bookwitch I feel a bit of a fraud. It’s as if I should know more, or be able to prove something.

Do people ask Mark Haddon what he knows about Asperger Syndrome, I wonder? For some reason it’s as if books on Aspie subjects need the writer to have close personal experience for the book to count. But do we ever challenge Mary Hoffman about her nighttime stravagating to Talia? I suspect she made most of it up.

No and Me

This French bestseller comes aimed at both the adult and the YA markets, and it’s easy to see why. The book is written from the point of view of 13-year-old Lou, but as with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident it’s a story on several levels, where not everything is entirely clear to the young heroine. I don’t think that Delphine de Vigan meant for No and Me to be an Aspie novel, and Lou probably isn’t on the autistic spectrum, but at the same time there is much here that will make the ASD reader feel right at home.

Lou is so intelligent she goes to school with 15-year-olds, but she doesn’t fit in. At home she has other problems with parents who don’t have time for her. There is a reason for this, but it doesn’t mean her life is any easier. She ends up doing a school project on the homeless after accidentally meeting No on the streets.

Eventually No comes to live with Lou and her parents, and things change. Lou also makes friends with the other ‘misfit’ in her form, Lucas, who is 17 and has spent years repeating classes instead of moving up. No changes the lives of these four people, and in some way they change hers too.

This is not a sunny, happy-ever-after story. I suspect it mirrors real life among the homeless pretty well, and it’s not encouraging reading. But at the same time it’s both fascinating, and partly uplifting. Readers over a certain age can probably see what Lou doesn’t, and we have to admire how fervently she tries to make No’s life better, and how she tries to incorporate her new friend/older-sister-figure into her family.

Lou could be a Jacqueline Wilson character with a French twist, plonked down in the middle of Melvin Burgess’s Junk. Just so you get the flavour of this marvellous story.

Gridzbi Spudvetch!

Who would not want to read this book? Granted, few of us could walk into a shop and ask for it very easily, but isn’t it an intriguing title? It does exist under this title, but not in very many copies, I believe. It’s also not the same book, because Mark Haddon re-wrote his earlier book.

Now it’s called Boom!, which is OK. And the book is very OK. Very funny, and it still has plenty of funny words in it, because that’s the language spoken by the aliens.

It’s got some stock type characters, but that’s fine. You know where you are with old characters. Jimbo and his friend Charlie are the kind of boys who happen upon adventures. You just can’t trust your teachers at school. (I’m reminded of a song that goes ‘the creature was a teacher..’) Spudvetch.

Jimbo has an older sister who is a pain and she has a boyfriend who is a worse pain. But they have their uses. Successful mothers, one potentially useless dad, aliens, brass wristbands, gourmet cooking, motorbikes, Volvos.

There must be something about Camasunary, because this is the second book I’ve read set partly in this remote corner of Skye. Funny goings-on in both cases, but Mark Haddon’s are the weirdest. I love Becky, the older sister. She is capable and someone you want on your side when things are difficult.

And who wouldn’t like an alien called Britney?


Al Capone Does My Shirts

I like an amusing book title as well as the next witch, and Al Capone Does My Shirts has a lot going for it. But if Gennifer Choldenko had only as much as breathed the word autism, when she sent me her book, or if Bloomsbury had thought to mention autism in the blurb, I’d have read this book seven months ago. As soon as it arrived, in fact, because of my particular interest in autistic fiction.

On the other hand, it made for a very pleasant surprise to find this gem nestling among my selected holiday reads, which were about the only part of my packing that had any care taken about it at all. By page two I knew in my heart that I was reading a novel about autism. Set in 1935 on Alcatraz, it never mentions the word autism, as it hadn’t been “invented” at the time, but no matter. Moose Flanagan, who is 12, has just moved to Alcatraz with his family, which includes his sister Natalie who is ten, for the fifth year running. Natalie loves buttons, maths and lemon cake. Moose has to help his parents by looking after his sister rather more then he would like.

Al Capone was on Alcatraz in 1935, and worked in the prison laundry; hence the title of the book. Even without the autism angle, this novel is wonderful, with a really good 1930s feel to it, and Alcatraz itself is fascinating. There’s so much happening here, and the book is crammed with information on life on the Rock during the Depression.

Gennifer has, by all accounts, done a lot of research, and it shows. Also, her sister was autistic, and Gennifer obviously knows what she is talking about here. Unusually for a children’s novel, you also get an author’s notes section which is very interesting.

Al Capone Does My Shirts is about the best autistic novel I’ve read, and I don’t feel Gennifer has any reason to feel intimidated by Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident. Gennifer tells me there’s a sequel on the way (with plans for a third book), and I can’t wait.

Radio Four on books about disability

The BBC had the good sense to turn to my local bookshop for a piece on the You and Yours programme on Good Friday. They spent fifteen minutes discussing children’s books featuring disability, which is about time. It seems that publishers think stupid thoughts like “there’s already a book out there which deals with disability, so we don’t need another one”.

They visited the shop and met up with some of the young reviewers there, who had each been given a book to read. It’s good to hear how well they spoke about their thoughts on the books. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was one (obviously) and it was given to someone who’d never have considered the book otherwise, as it looked too young.

Among other books recommended I was pleased to find Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery. So that we don’t equate disability with Asperger Syndrome; has anyone got suggestions for really good disability books?

The programme can be heard again for the next week on the BBC website.