May 31, 2018

(+++) REFUSING TO BE UNABLE


Bat and the Waiting Game. By Elana K. Arnold. Pictures by Charles Santoso. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.

Into the Nightfell Wood. By Kristin Bailey. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Although neither of these novels is labeled as a sequel, both are second entries in series – and both feature central characters with a disability of some type that is important to the story but that does not in any way limit their involvement in the events. Thus, one element of both books’ stories is their underlying notion that being disabled does not mean being unable to accomplish things – and have exciting adventures. Actually, the adventure in Bat and the Waiting Game, for ages 6-10, is a mundane suburban one, involving family, friends, school and pets. But it is somewhat out of the ordinary because the pet here is a baby skunk, known as a kit, that Bat is caring for after his mother, a veterinarian, brings it home. Bat’s parents are divorced, so there are the usual-for-this-age-group difficulties associated with the situation (that is to say, mild misunderstandings). But it is Bat himself – so named for the initials of his name, Bixby Alexander Tam – who is the most unusual element of the book, since he has autism spectrum disorder and his responses to stimuli are not the ones to be expected from most kids his age. Yet a major point of the book is that everyone accepts Bat just as he is, at every step of the way in the story: his parents; his sister, Janie, whose school performance is ruined when Thor, the skunk, sprays the auditorium after Bat unwisely brings the animal to school; his best friend, Israel; his teacher, Mr. Grayson; and everyone else who appears in Elana K. Arnold’s novel. This is thus a book of determined mainstreaming: there are no significant bumps in the road for Bat or anyone who interacts with him, and everybody is accepting, helpful, and more than willing to treat Bat exactly the way everyone else is treated. To say this is a na├»ve and wishful interpretation of the integration of autism into society is to state the obvious – but families with children at or near Bat’s position on the autism spectrum will welcome the normalization of the condition that the book offers and may even be able to use it as a teaching tool for families with non-autistic children. Charles Santoso’s pleasant, anime-inspired illustrations treat all the characters with equal sensitivity, just as Arnold’s writing does. There is little unusual in the plot and interactions in Bat and the Waiting Game, which is a followup story to A Boy Called Bat. But at some level, that is exactly the point Arnold wants to make: Bat and other children on the autism spectrum are exactly like everyone else here, except for some very small and easily handled behaviors that may seem slightly quirky. In the real world, these children are not exactly like everyone else and not as simply integrated into everyday activities as Bat is, but families with kids like Bat would certainly like them to be. So if Bat and the Waiting Game depicts an idealized world, it does so for good reason and out of good motives, and at least does not take things so far as to make the entire setting seem like an unattainable fantasy.

     The world of Into the Nightfell Wood, on the other hand, is an unattainable fantasy, by design. This is the sequel to The Silver Gate and offers the further adventures of that novel’s protagonists: Wynn and her older brother, Elric. Intended for readers ages 8-12, Into the Nightfell Wood features a protagonist with a rare genetic condition called Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome. This is a disease that causes short stature, moderate to major learning difficulties, various distinctive facial features, and broad thumbs and first toes – for which reason it is sometimes called broad thumb-hallux syndrome. A difficulty with Into the Nightfell Wood is that readers need to know about Wynn’s genetic inheritance from the start, even though it is not presented here: it was discussed by Kristin Bailey in an author’s note to The Silver Gate. Not knowing about Wynn’s condition makes Into the Nightfell Wood, which already follows the preteen fantasy-adventure formula rather slavishly, seem even more formulaic. For example, much of the book involves Wynn’s discovery that she is braver, stronger and has more abilities than she herself has ever believed. That common trope of the genre gains extra depth for readers who understand what genetic background Wynn possesses and is learning to overcome. Similarly, Elric’s love for and faith in his sister, another standard element of fare of this sort, means more in light of Wynn’s condition; readers unaware of it will find less to enjoy and admire in the siblings’ relationship. The story itself here is quite a standard one. In the first book, Wynn and Elric were on a quest for safety, which they found by passing through the Silver Gate and being adopted by the Fairy Queen, who declared them prince and princess of the realm. The queen has her own problems, however, in Into the Nightfell Wood. She shields the land from the darkness that dwells in the Nightfell Wood, which is under the control of the evil Grendel. But her power is being undermined by her grief over the long-ago kidnapping of her own child, and she is overprotective of the new prince and princess. So soon enough, inevitably, Wynn is tricked into going into the Nightfell Wood, and Elric has to find and save her, and there ensue alternating chapters of the siblings’ adventures as they endure treachery, danger and violence while discovering kindness, bravery and love. There are the usual battles, imprisonments and escapes, and there is the usual pass at meaningfulness as Wynn and Elric learn about the true nature of evil. But Into the Nightfell Wood is mainly interesting for its focus on the siblings and their relationship – and that element is additionally meaningful only if readers know about Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome and how it has affected Wynn. Pre-reading of The Silver Gate is really a must for enjoyment of this successor novel.

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