Tag Archive for Autism

Spider Review

It’s a quiet time of year, isn’t it? That lull before the shift into Fall and the coming school season. People are on vacation or shopping for school supplies, cleaning out closets, pulling out old sweaters. Nobody seems to be working very hard. And in this desultory space, my new book, Along Came Spider, quietly squeezes onto the shelves. There’s not been much buzz, but, hey, we’ll attribute that to the transitory nature of the season.

Even so, I found a little review by Monica Young in the Winston-Salem Journal, from an article titled, “Reading Out the Sad End of Summer.

Spider Stevens has accepted next-door neighbor Trey Cooper’s eccentricities since they began playing together in preschool. But now that fifth grade is here, Trey’s odd behavior embarrasses Spider, who suggests to Trey that they hang out only at home.

Trey, who seems autistic, although this is never stated in the book, is thrown off-balance at Spider’s suggestion that he make some new friends. However, Trey bravely tries to expand his horizons. This would make a fabulous read-aloud for elementary classrooms. Both Spider’s and Trey’s viewpoints are conveyed well, providing an excellent springboard for discussion on compassion and true friendship.

I’m grateful for the point made in that last sentence, because I do feel this is a “talking book,” one that in the hands of a good teacher could be a source of lively discussion in the classroom.

Kirkus Reviews Spider

Here’s what Kirkus Reviews had to say about Along Came Spider:

Spider Stevens and Trey Cooper have lived next door to each other their entire lives and have been best friends throughout their years at Spiro Agnew Elementary School. Trey has a type of autism that seems to accentuate the worst traits of ADHD and OCD. He has poor self-control, peculiar habits and awkward social skills. In fifth grade, Trey’s obvious eccentricities, once acceptable and even endearing, are now a liability, and Trey’s peers now regard him as weird and an outcast. This puts Spider in the difficult position of having to choose whether to remain loyal to his oldest friend or to abandon him to join the ranks of the popular kids. Preller adeptly portrays the psychological and social dynamics of this age group, and Trey is realistic and sympathetic as a misfit, if not as memorable as Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza or Jerry Spinelli’s David Zinkoff. The pressures Spider feels from his peers to belong and conform will resonate with middle-grade readers

I don’t know, reviews are so weird. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this review, though naturally is doesn’t inspire me to do the Dance of Joy. The Spinelli/Zinkoff reference is from the book, Loser, btw, which several people told me to read when I first discussed Spider with them. The problem is, though I hugely respect Spinelli — first book, age 41! — I find it’s distinctly unhelpful to read another author’s take on a similar topic. It’s paralyzing. There are many times when I use books as sources of inspiration, but when I’m deep into writing, I stay far away from any material that might be close to what I’m doing.

One other thing about that word, autism. Trey Cooper is never diagnosed in the book. I never said that he is autistic, intentionally. I did that for several reasons, primarily because I don’t think that kids relate to each other that way. If somebody makes another child angry or annoyed, a typical eleven-year-old isn’t going to think, “Oh, his mother is an alcoholic,” or, “That’s cool, he’s got OCD.” The response is more direct and immediate. The second reason is that I’m not qualified to put a medical label on Trey, though I gave him many traits common with the vast array of characteristics that fall under Spectrum Disorders. Lastly, one aspect of the book is getting away from labels (jock, geek, brainiac, weirdo, whatever), and of trying to see the individual underneath, i.e., walking a mile in someone else’s sneakers.

Spider on the Blogs!

A fresh copy of my upcoming book, Along Came Spider (Scholastic, August), arrived in the mail last week. That’s a righteous moment for any author/illustrator: the first book off the presses! And always it’s the same story. Your editor tells you how she could only get one copy, purloined off somebody in marketing, but there’s surely more somewhere in the warehouse, and pretty soon (maybe) they’ll find them.

And nothing happens for a few weeks, while you cling to your sole copy of the book, holding it out to friends for a brief sniff and greedily pulling it back, like Gollum and his precious ring.

On the cyberfront, Spider has gotten a couple of reviews from blogs. So far, so good. I think the reviewers are right in that it’s a simply-written story about complex feelings. I guess it’s noteworthy in the sense that these kinds of stories — basically: friendship under duress — are more commonly written about girls, as if boys suffered none of these emotional/ethical conflicts, as if, in fact, boys had no interior lives at all. (We just like trucks, right? And noises that go BOOM.)

They are also correct in that I didn’t do anything flashy with the writing. It’s funny, I feel like my entire post-college writing career has been a long process of learning how to get out of the way. Or, that is, un-learning much what they taught me in college! I’ve come to increasingly admire restraint, simplicity and austerity, sentences like, oh, “A minute later he was snoring” (Steig, Doctor De Soto). Unadorned, absent of any look-at-how-clever-I-am writing. I suppose I’m sensitive to this aspect of writing because, as a particular brand of male ego, I’m so vulnerable to it. When I’m at my worst, I gild the lily. So I’ve come to perceive that trait as the Enemy Within, the danger I need to purge against: overwriting, AKA, showing off. That’s where revision comes in, pulling the purple prose off the bone, like picking cotton candy off the cardboard cylinder.

Anyway, here’s some links and money quotes from the reviews:

* * * * *

From Ignacio Guerra at Alan Online:

James Preller delves into the hostile and confusing world of adolescence and illuminates how yearning for acceptance and popularity can sometimes strain a friendship. This exposé on the complicated social dynamics of school is a fascinating joy to read with excellent readability and flow!

* * * * *

From Nan Hoekstra at Anokaberry:

Preller tells an everyday story with eloquence and empathetic grace. These ordinary (amazing) kids are growing up — daily making their own way, raised by parents, guided by teachers and events. Often in groups, always alone, trying to figure themselves and others out. No under or overstated angst here, the author just tells us about it, and lets the characters speak . . . Thanks James Preller, for (another) outstanding contribution to literature for precious children.

* * * * *

By the way, I’m amazed by book reviewers. How do they read so much?! You look at Nan’s site, or so many others, and it’s like, “Do they just read all the time? When do they eat?” I am genuinely grateful, and somewhat awed.

First Review: Along Came Spider!

The process of getting a hardcover book published takes time. There’s the idea, the talking about the idea, the research and rough notes, the first draft, the endless revision, the rejected covers, the final cover (see top of main page), the galleys, the proofreading, the advance copies for reviewers, the binding, the waiting. So much time passes, and distance stretches, that you begin to wonder if it will ever actually become a Real Book.

That’s how it’s been for Along Came Spider, published by Scholastic and edited by the redoubtable Shannon Penney, due in stores this August. But today I got a jolt when a friend tipped me off to a review at a blog called Literate Lives. Outside of a few close friends and a couple of local classrooms, this is the first response from The Outside World I’ve gotten to the book. Making it, officially, real. It wasn’t all a dream. (See review, below legendary, goofy clip from Dallas, Season Nine — speaking of dreams — for my older readers, who remember these things.)

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

The review so accurately describes the book, I’ll copy it here in full:

I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendhsips and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong in Along Came Spider, by James Preller (due out September 2008).

James Preller is probably most known for his Jigsaw Jones mystery series, but this book is much more character driven than the series.

This book has two main characters: Spider Stevens, a “typical” 5th grade boy, and Trey Cooper, Spider’s neighbor and childhood friend. The story takes place during the boys’ 5th grade year in Mrs. Wine’s classroom. Trey appears to be mildly autistic, though that is not explicitly stated in the text. Instead, there is the scene where Trey realizes his pencils are not as sharp as he’d like them to be: “… if Trey boke a penil tip, or noticed that his supply of perfectly pointed pencils was running low, Trey had to respond – immediately, ASAP, pronto.” And then when his teacher gets mad at him, he doesn’t understand why, and tries to get her to smile by quoting statements off Mrs. Wine’s Creating Smiles poster — only none of the phrases he chooses are appropriate to the situation. Trey seems to have difficulty with social cues. Then, there is the scene where he gets in trouble at recess, and has to stand at the wall. For him, that is a relief from the hectic and loud playground. So, he stands facing the brick wall, contemplating each individual brick.

Up until fifth grade, none of Trey’s behaviors or comments have bothered Spider; if anything, he has appreciated the wonderful brain Trey has and the way he can be so focused on a topic for a long period of time. They have been great friends. They play together at home, they walk to school together, they even do projects together. But in fifth grade, other kids start to pay attention to Spider, and he has an opportunity to be part of the “cool” boy group. But it will most likely mean Spider will have to leave Trey behind to be part of this other group.

The rest of the story deals with their separation as friends, and how they both grow a little as individuals. James Preller has also included a character that should make the 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Literature started by A Year of Reading. Her name is Ms. Lobel, the school librarian in the boys’ school. She is one amazing lady!!!!!!!!! Her perceptiveness and kindness truly know no bounds, and her ability to see things the way Trey does is amazing!

The story concludes in a very satisfying, realistic way, but that’s all I’m giving away because this is a book you need to read. I think that all adults in education, as well as students, need to read this book because it gives a thoughtful, insightful look into the minds of children like Trey. We all encounter them at sometime in our careers, and I hope, like the amazing Ms. Lobel, we can start to look at the “Treys” in our lives differently, instead of just looking at them as being different. There is a huge distinction in that mindset!

Thanks to James Preller for such a wonderful, thought-provoking story!