May 11, 2006


The Book of Everything. By Guus Kuijer. Translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Rules. By Cynthia Lord. Scholastic. $15.99.

     A strange, affecting book about a family in which the father perverts religion and the son develops his own highly personal version of belief, The Book of Everything is heady but difficult stuff for its intended audience of children ages nine and up.  The title refers to the book in which a young boy named Thomas writes down what he sees.  Among other things, he sees tropical fish swimming in the city’s canals.  He sees his father beat him and beat his mother.  He sees extraordinary beauty in a neighbor with an artificial leg.  He sees the Lord Jesus, who visits regularly and says, “Just call me Jesus.”  He sees his quick-witted sister Margot match wits with their narrow-minded, violent father.  And Thomas hears things, too, as when Jesus tells him, “I haven’t had an easy time with my father either, you know. …He was very strict.  I had to be nailed to the cross whether I wanted to or not. …And now I’ve lost Him on top of it all. …He disappeared after your last beating.  I think it got to be too much for Him.”

     It is tempting to probe this family’s various pathologies and to subject Thomas himself to both psychoanalytic and religious analysis (Thomas was, after all, one of the Apostles).  The constant hinting at complexity, coupled with the spasms of violence, makes this a difficult book for its target audience.  It is more puzzling than intriguing – you feel sorry for the characters’ situations more than for the characters themselves.  Yet this short novel (barely 100 pages) is strangely affecting as well as simply strange.  There is certainly something otherworldly about Thomas and his visions – or are the visions his reality, or even the reality?  This book will not likely have wide appeal, but it has the makings of a cult classic and could be a favorite of some highly inwardly focused children.

     Rules, for ages 9-12, is much easier to read and much more realistic.  It should be: it is loosely based on first-time author Cynthia Lord’s own family experiences as the mother of two children – one with autism.  The title refers to the family rules that 12-year-old Catherine constantly tries to get her autistic brother, David, to follow, from “chew with your mouth closed” to “if the bathroom door is closed, knock (especially if Catherine has a friend over).”  But Rules also refers to the more general social rules that Catherine herself finds difficult to follow one summer when she meets wheelchair-bound Jason, who cannot speak, and possible-best-friend Kristi.  “At a friend’s house,” Catherine tells us, “everything is uncomplicated.  No one drops toys in the fish tank…and no one shrieks unless there’s a huge, hairy spider crawling up her arm.”  It is at Kristi’s house that Catherine feels she can “just be me and put the sister part of me down” – that is, the part whose life, whose whole family’s life, revolves around an autistic child.  The book is all about self-discovery under trying circumstances, and it is all so well-meaning and heartfelt that it is impossible not to want it to be a good book.  But it really isn’t – not quite.  The “accept those who are different” message isn’t just written – it is, in effect, spray-painted, graffiti-style, on every page.  The “we all have our awkwardnesses” message is slathered on with all the subtlety of molasses, and is every bit as treacly to read.  There is a story here, but Rules screams “message book” on every page, and quickly becomes very wearing indeed.  The message is a good one, and the book will resonate with families in situations similar to the one the author’s family is in.  But it won’t reach much beyond that core audience – and doesn’t seem to care to try.

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