December 26, 2007

Breaking Borders

As the numbers of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder continue to rise, so too do the numbers of books that try to help educate young readers about the issue. No doubt it's crucial. Borderline, by Bonnie Rozanski, is the story of Guy Ritter, a normal boy with an autistic brother. It preoccupies his parents, affects family relationships, and pushes Guy into the background.

Understandably, Guy is resentful; fortunately, he has his best friend Matt (who can sympathize--he has his own struggles with obesity and difficult parents). And, after visiting his father's animal lab, he has NB2405, also known as Wolf. Wolf is part of an experiment documenting genetic changes over successive generations of wolves. Caught in the middle—he's not quite wild, not quite tame—and trapped in a cage, Wolf sparks feelings of kinship and sympathy in Guy.

Wolf may be doomed at the end of the experiment, but he's not the only one with problems. There's Matt and his father, with increasing obesity-related health problems. And, of course, there's Guy's brother Austin, who hasn't responded well to treatment despite their mother's unrelenting and obsessive search for a cause—food products, cell phone towers, immunizations. Ultimately, in many ways this is a story about control, loss of control, and learning to let go: not every problem can be solved, and it's important not to forget about those things you can control, no matter how insignificant they seem. Sometimes letting go is the key.

This is a complex, information-packed book—the story is strong and Guy is an endearing but sparky narrator, but in some ways I feel that it would be strongest as a piece that is read together by parents and children, or teachers and students. It would no doubt provoke some thoughtful conversations about not only autism but the connections between poor health, illness, and lifestyle, and ways to deal with those issues. It's definitely not a casual read—for my taste, the heavy flow of information slowed the story down a bit too much—but there's no denying these are important topics for discussion.

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