Twelve-year-old Catherine is an imaginative girl who sketches, paints, and makes lists of words like “murky” to describe her feelings. What’s so murky about her life? Well, her eight-year-old brother David has autism. Because of David’s needs, she often feels overlooked by her parents and forced to be more responsible. Babysitting a brother who might take off his pants in public if he spills something on them is a big burden for a kid who just wants to exchange flashlight messages in Morse code with her new neighbor. But she loves David, and as his big sister she maintains an ever-growing list of rules to help him navigate an unfamiliar and sometimes unfriendly world.
Everybody has rules, Catherine says. Most families have rules like:
No snacks right before supper.
Call if you’re going to be late.
Even guinea pigs, like Catherine’s Nutmeg and Cinnamon, have rules:
Crying will get you attention.
If it fits in your mouth it’s food.
Scream if you don’t get your share.
So Catherine has rules for David, too, like:
No toys in the fish tank.
Late doesn’t mean not coming.
Sometimes people laugh when they like you. But sometimes they laugh to hurt you.
And Catherine has a few rules for herself, too:
No dancing unless I am alone in my room or it’s pitch-black dark.
When you say something stupid, gloss over it with superfast talking and maybe no one’ll notice.
Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.
Pantless brothers are not my problem.
At Occupational Therapy with David, she befriends Jason. She doesn’t know what his disability is, but “it’s something big,” because he’s in a wheelchair and has to use a communication book full of word cards to talk. Catherine decorates his word cards with sketches. She also shares new words with him, words that rapidly expand Jason’s world. In turn, Jason teaches her that she needs to obey some of her own rules—and also that rules against dancing are dumb.
Rules is Cynthia Lord’s first novel, inspired by her experiences as the mother of two kids, one of whom has autism. Her protagonist is charming and believable, and the scenes describe a real family with all the funny and frustrating bits. My library classifies this as “teen fiction” (it’s a Newbery Honor Book) but I recommend it for any age. Since it offers the perspective of a sibling, I find it a nice companion to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (my review here), written from the point of view of an autistic boy.