Rules by Cynthia Lord
Published by Scholastic Inc., New York, 2006
Book Review by Deborah Kimball
Cynthia Lords’ novel Rules is a work of realistic fiction based loosely on her own family. Her son has Autism and she realized that all the children’s books written about families that have children with disabilities were very sad and she thought that was wrong. The chronologically told story is written in first person as the main character, Catherine’s, point of view. The plot revolves around Catherine’s wanting to make a new friend this summer without her brother David “ruining” it. Catherine and the story are very relatable to a preteen or teenage audience because Catherine’s anxieties about her life are similar to those of other girls that age. The setting takes place in a seaside town in Maine and begins on the first day of summer vacation. I believe that Cynthia Lords’ has approached the topic of children with severe disabilities in a realistic, thoughtful and compassionate way that will help the young reader understand that persons with disabilities want the same things that persons without disabilities want in their lives; to have friendships that are meaningful and to be seen as people too.
Catherine matures as the main character through the journey of the text. At first she is self-centered and concerned with her own priorities in life. As the book progresses she softens her edges as she realizes as overwhelmed as she feels the weight of having to help out with her brother, David’s needs, she sees the weariness in her father and mother’s demeanor as well. Later in the text she reconciles the fact that people come in all shapes, sizes and abilities and we all have to live together despite our differences.
Catherine’s thoughtful weekly interactions with a severely disabled young man, Jason, in the text also changes his character from a child who is not engaged with society and wishes he could die sometimes, to a child that wants to experience life as much as possible and try new things. Her act of friendship in the end not only saves Jason, but it saves her too. Her weekly connections with Jason make her reflect on life and how others treat persons with disabilities in a way that she couldn’t see while dealing with her brother’s issues.
Although the author included no illustrations in the text, the writer’s word choices describe the setting vividly to include all of the senses. For example, Catherine describes the scenery on the way to her brother David’s therapy appointment, “I look for snowy egrets standing stick-still in the salt marshes and osprey circling, hunting fish. At high tide, waves sparkle under the wooden bridges, and I can guess the tide before I even see the water, just by closing my eyes and breathing the air through the open car windows. Low tide smells mud-black and tangy, but high tide smells clean and salty” (P13-14). Her words transport the reader into the backseat of the car with Catherine so the one can almost hear the birds and smell the salt water.
In closing, I think this award winning novel is powerful story about the way we treat disabled persons and puts this important social issue front and center in the story. The text includes several children with disabilities and depicts the struggles and sacrifices the families must make to care for their children who need care 24/7, in a realistic and compassionate way. It also represents children with disabilities as real people with human needs, like the need of a friend. I would highly recommend this book for a preteen or young teen audience. It could perhaps be used as a read aloud in school in a younger classroom if the teacher was going to have in depth discussions about the characters and disabilities.