The Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence (Red Cedar Club Book)

I was born a few years before Dr. Salk introduced the first polio vaccine. My mother tells stories about waving at my father through the hospital window after the births of myself and later on, my sister. No one was allowed in for fear of spreading polio. I was too young to recollect the atmosphere of terror, but children I went to school with carried visibly the remnants of their battle with the disease.
Through this book I have come to understand a time in my own history much clearer.
I picked it up because so many of my Red Cedar Club readers have raved about it. They were not wrong. 
Laurie Valentine is a young girl at the time of the polio epidemic. Her mother has died and her father is a fundraiser for the March of dimes in the battle to defeat polio. Laurie is left alone most of the time.
When Dickie, a younger boy, moves into the neighborhood, she makes her first friend. Then Dickie comes down with polio and ends up living at the Bishop – a hospital for children with polio. Laurie disobeys her father’s orders and goes to visit him. She finds him in a room with other children surviving inside iron lungs. To ease her own discomfort, and to help them pass the time, she begins to narrate a story about a giant named Colosso and Jimmy the Giant-Slayer. The captivating tale is populated with mythical creatures from many different regions and cultures.  There are gnomes, trolls, griffins, dragons and minotaurs.
As the saga unfolds there is an intertwining of the reality of the children’s lives and the story. Dickie, Chip, Carolyn and Jimmy find themselves represented in the characters as Laurie weaves them, miraculously, into the tale. Reality becomes even more blurred with Dickie's claim to dream the events and predicaments they find themselves in prior to Laurie telling them. Then disaster strikes, and the children must continue the story to save their friend.
Iain Lawrence melds historical fiction with fantasy in this book. His gift is that while the fantasy of the story provides counterpoint to the harshness of the polio ward, it also integrates them. Yet what makes the novel especially profound is that as the children engage in conversations about the story and their roles within it, readers are forced to examine the power of story - and our capacity to become creators and actors in our own tales.

All Our Children Are Special

The profound gift of literature is that it can open us up to many different kinds of truths. It is perhaps, the only vehicle for helping us to understand what it means to be someone other than ourselves.
Growing up in a household with a disabled father made me aware of how important it is to build bridges and create spaces to understand that individuals are not their disability.  Of course, it also influenced my reaction to these two books here.

After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick takes us inside the head of a teenage boy. Both Jeffrey and his best friend, Tad, are cancer survivors. Jeffrey’s cancer is now in remission, but Tad’s is a recurring kind. Both boys are profoundly changed by their treatment. Tad uses a wheelchair. Whereas Jeffrey has been left with a limp, it is his cognitive ability, especially in the area of mathematics, which has been affected. Both boys, and their families, live with the threat of ‘What if it comes back?’ hanging over their heads.

The characters are real people you come to care deeply about. On one level they are just teenage kids trying to deal with regular adolescent issues. Jeffrey hopes for the miracle of Lindsay Abraham, the new girl in class, becoming his girlfriend. Like all kids that age they struggle with figuring out who they are and want they want to become. On another level, it deals with much bigger societal issues. The mastery of Sonnenblick’s writing is that he brings it all together.

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I learned much about the effects and aftereffects of cancer and chemotherapy, on kids and their families. It has is has its own kind of hilarity. It has it’s own kind of joy. It is not sappy in the least, although I admit to crying. I loved this book because it highlights the idiocy of massive standardized testing in schools. I loved this book because it demonstrates how powerful we can be when we act together.

This is a great book!

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper is about a child with a different kind of challenge. It is told from the perspective of Melody, a gifted child who has cerebral palsy. 
Her frustration and trapped brilliance seize us from the first pages:
Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes – each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs.
From the time I was really little – maybe just a few months old – words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade. I could almost taste them. They made my jumbled thoughts and feelings have substance.….
…By the time I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meaning.
But only in my head.
I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old.”

This book takes us into Melody’s head and the classroom at Spaulding Street Elementary School where special needs children are warehoused. Eventually the students are integrated into other classrooms, but for the most part they are viewed as freaks by the majority of the school population. Melody gets an aid to assist her in a more meaningful integration. Then she gets a Media–Talker, a kind of computer that enables her to speak through voice-generated technology.

Melody wants to be just like all the other girls her age. She worries about her clothes. She wants to have girl friends. She wants to be accepted. She thinks the Media–Talker will enable all this. It doesn’t. On they other hand, it does enable Melody’s intellectual capacity to be understood and accepted. She ends up on the Whiz Kids' team and helps them win the first level of their competition.  In the end, in spite of her incredible ability, it is her disabilities that her classmates and others seem to focus on.

The book works to educate the reader about what it is like to be so profoundly disabled. Melody is a spunky engaging character and I wanted her desperately to succeed. It speaks to why inclusion of these children is so important in regular classrooms.

It isn’t really a bad read except that so many of the characters are too one-dimensional. People are often fearful, stupid and curious about individuals with special needs, but I don’t think they are deliberately malicious as Draper represents Melody’s peers in this book. The teachers from the special class are also presented unrealistically. Like everyone else, teachers have preconceptions about what disabled individuals are capable of, but none that I have met, have ever been as unaware or ignorant as some of the teachers in this book are portrayed.

However troubled I might be by the one-dimensional rendering of many of the characters in Out of My Mind, it is still an important book on many levels. It challenges our thinking about what it is like to be disabled and hopefully will force readers to take a hard look at our own attitudes and beliefs. 
It certainly did so for me.