Summer Reading Days

As a Child Psychiatrist, I read many books for children and adolescents so that I have books to recommend to parents and my patients, or to adults who want to purchase books for children and youth. Summer is the best time for reading and I have two wonderful books to recommend. (Note: If you live in Ottawa, you can find both in the Ottawa Public Library.)

Let’s start with Rules by Cynthia Lord. “Not everything worth keeping is useful” is one of the “rules” that Catherine, the main character of Lord’s book for older children and teens, establishes for her younger brother who suffers from Autism Spectrum Disorder. David. Catherine’s brother, like all people with this condition, has great difficulty understanding and negotiating a human being’s regular day –to- day existence, mostly because of difficulty with that part of our communication which is nonverbal and metaphorical. If only we meant what we said…

Catherine struggles between her anger about how David’s condition interferes with her “normal” life and her anger at neighbours, friends, teachers, anyone whose treatment of David (or any person with different abilities) is guided by prejudice or pity rather than common humanity. To assist David as he progresses in his interactions with others, Catherine develops “Rules” for David for social interactions and day-to-day situations.

Anyone who has ever lived with stigma can relate to Catherine’s longing for a “normal family life”, and especially a “normal brother”, as much as she loves David. Rules draws the reader in since we realize that, as Catherine tries to make friends with her new next door neighbor, she also has difficulty maintaining the high standards that she sets for others. As difficult as it is for her to make friends with someone “normal”, she becomes close friends with someone else, although she does not realize this.

A Newbery Honor Book, Rules also earned the Schneider Family Book Award. This is an award to honour an author or illustrator for a book that “embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for children and adolescent audiences”.

Ultimately, Rules is not just a book about which rules to keep, but also which rules must be broken. Because, as we all have to learn: Not everything worth keeping is useful.

The second book, Kingfisher Days by Susan Coyne, would be a great book to read aloud in the evening on a family vacation. The main character, the author herself, is five and so even younger children would enjoy the story. Anyone older will have an opportunity to remember what it was like when they were five years old. They will also have an opportunity to remember those adults who brought  wonder and magic into their lives. The perfect summer book, Kingfisher Days is, on one level, a book about the pleasures of a Canadian summer spent at a cottage on a lake. It is also the story of the author’s relationship with her next door neighbor at the lake and how it is mediated by a fairy/wood nymph/elf named “Nootsie Tah”. Susan finds a stone fireplace under a hedge between her cottage and her neighbour’s. Her father tells her that the fireplace is left from a cottage for elves that burnt down. Susan begins to leave small gifts and pictures for the elves and one morning, she finds her first letter from Nootsie Tah, a fairy who writes to Susan, “I am very beautiful and a great princess,” and signs herself “Nootsie Tah, Princess”. After a second letter arrives at the stone fireplace, Susan dictates her own letter back. Susan discusses her correspondence with her neighbour, Mr. Moir, who supplements the letters with readings about fairies from such sources as Shakespeare and Keats. All summer long letters go back and forth between the fairy princess and the human girl, who finally tells the princess that she loves her. As everyone knows, love sets fairies free and Nootsie Tah is thrilled to return to her mother in far-off Peru. Susan is sad, but her friend’s leave taking makes it possible to close the summer adventure for Susan.

In introducing the book, the author tells us, “This is the story of a remarkable friendship, which began when I was five years old, and has nourished me all my life.”

Both of these books are about relationships, and how we must cultivate them but they are also about the metaphors and symbols that help us to understand not only what is literally true, but true. This is the best kind of book to read, and not just in summer.

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