We create rules as a way to manage our time, personalities, and behaviors. We make rules in order to control our lives and give order to the world around us. Rules let us agree on a common way of acting, of certain expectations being met, and of certain boundaries not being crossed. Rules tell us how to live.
Following rules and finding our place in the world is central to Cynthia Lord’s Rules, a powerful young adult novel about a fifth grade girl, Catherine, and her autistic brother, David. Along the way they befriend a non-verbal, wheelchair-bound boy named Jason, who, despite his physical limitations, helps set Catherine free of her self-imposed and restrictive “rules.” After all, rules are meant to be broken.
Catherine wishes her brother’s autism would simply disappear, that he’d just wake up “normal” one day. But in case that doesn’t happen, she’s compiling a list of rules so “at least he’ll know how the world works, and I won’t have to keep explaining things.”
Catherine gives voice to the siblings of special needs individuals everywhere when she notes:
“Everyone expects a tiny bit from him and a huge lot from me.”
Later, Catherine talks honestly with her father.
“I have to matter, too. As much as work and your garden, and even as much as David. I need you, too.”
Catherine ponders the nature of her brother’s disability. As the father of a son with autism I found her insights packed an emotional wallop. (Note: Cynthia Lord is the mother of boy with autism.)
“How can his outside look so normal and his inside be so broken? Like an apple, red perfect on the outside, but mushy brown at the first bite.”
Catherine struggles with being both embarrassed by her brother and protective of him in equal measure. She hates when people treat her brother “like he’s invisible. It makes me mad, because it’s mean and it makes me invisible, too.”
Two of Catherine’s most simple rules are the most profound.
There are flaws in all of us—not just those with special needs.
We all try to do the best we can to fit in, but things don’t always end up the way we intend.
There are quite a few laughs here, and a few weepy emotional moments, too. Some of the most profound highlight the differences in Catherine and David’s mental capacities. At one point both kids get a chance to make a wish. Catherine says:
I wish everyone had the same chances. Because it stinks a big one that they don’t. What about you?
David wishes for grape soda.
Cynthia Lord plays it straight in Rules, and doesn’t overdo it on the sentimentality. The result is an engaging read filled with light and love. A couple of Lord’s rules are bound to stick with you after the novel’s close:
Sometimes you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.
Looking closer can make something beautiful.