Fact Number 3.14159 from the Random Access Memory of Edison Thomas: The loudest noise ever heard by human ears (in recorded history) was the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in Indonesia on Aug. 27, 1883. The sound was heard 3,000 miles away, and shock waves from the explosion circled the earth seven times.
Edison Thomas ("Eddy") files away astounding facts and retrieves them when things get overwhelming. He's a sixth-grade science whiz who hates loud noises, can't read social cues and uses his email account only to order parts for his inventions (never to "correspond with human beings"). Though it's never stated outright, Eddy has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder many neuropsychologists consider a less severe form of autism. With her debut middle-grade novel, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (out this month in hardcover from Front Street/Boyds Mills Press, $18), Madison author Jacqueline Houtman adds a super-smart but socially clueless young inventor to the growing pantheon of fictional characters with autism.
Beginning in 2003 with Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (a novel that was written for adults but crossed over big into the young-adult market), a spate of middle-grade and young-adult novels have featured autistic protagonists struggling to cope in a "neurotypical" world. All are blessed with unique gifts (single-minded focus, brilliant analytical skills) that make for compelling characters.
Autism is on the rise: New statistics from government-funded studies reveal that one in 91 American children - and one in 58 boys - are affected by autism-spectrum disorders. Wisconsin's funding for in-home autism treatment programs, approved in 1994, draws families to relocate to Madison and other Wisconsin cities because of quality providers and strong support networks, says Molly Immendorf, past president and current board member of the Autism Society of Greater Madison. Her group offers educational workshops, speakers and social opportunities for families with autism.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and Immendorf sees a book like The Reinvention of Edison Thomas as one more way to raise awareness and, hopefully, inspire empathy.
"With Asperger's, for example, it's common to have an intense interest," says Immendorf. "If young readers recognize some of [Eddy's] traits in one of their classmates, they may begin wondering what that kid's 'intense interest' is. They may think he or she might be a good person to know."
But both Immendorf and Houtman caution about making generalizations. Autistic children may share some traits, but each child is a unique blend of abilities and limitations, says Houtman.
The Reinvention of Edison Thomas opens with Eddy fuming about winning only third place in the school science fair. The project worked perfectly, but, as Eddy's dad bluntly tells him, Eddy spent too much time obsessively unwinding and rewinding his copper coil. And his poster wasn't so great. Sulkily, he files the project in a box at home labeled "Unappreciated Inventions," suspecting that one day, it will come in handy. One day, it does - but not in the way readers might expect. Before that happens, Eddy endures (and learns to stand up to) painful bullying, invents a traffic-calming device for a dangerous intersection and embarks on a dangerous crossing of his own: over the chasm of isolation, toward friendship.
Kirkus Reviews called Houtman's middle-grade novel a "wry debut" and praised the "strong and satisfying" science theme. You'll find yourself rooting for Eddy simply because he's so darn brilliant. Heads up, smart kids: Even you might miss some of the sly intellectual jokes sprinkled throughout the book. It took me two reads to catch that Random Fact 3.14159 (above) occupies the pi value in Eddy's memory. Snap!
Eddy, despite his formidable intellect, has a tough time at school. Like many "Aspies," he must think twice as hard as "neurotypical" kids about when, and how, to express emotion. He doesn't understand why people sometimes laugh at him. And it takes him awhile to catch on that Mitch, his longtime buddy, is the perpetrator of some pretty nasty tricks. The "I'm a Geek" sign on Eddy's back is just the beginning of a casually cruel bullying campaign that will have readers burning with injustice. Haven't we all been there?
Houtman wanted to show that Eddy is not so different from other people. She hopes readers will like him, understand his challenges, and realize why kids like him do the things they do.
"Everyone has horrible memories of middle school, even the 'popular' kids," she points out. "For a character on the 'spectrum,' the struggles are just more amplified."
Houtman, a freelance science writer with a Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology from UW, admits she's intimately familiar with Eddy's struggles. There's a bit of her in Eddy, as well as several other people close to her. Still, she rejected a first-person narrator because she felt the intimate tone wouldn't fit with Eddy's search to understand himself. Third-person creates a bit of muted distance, highlighting the loneliness Eddy (and others like him) must feel.
Eddy has all the classic hallmarks of Asperger's, but Houtman doesn't come right out and say so in the book.
"I didn't want to label him," she explains. "People have certain expectations for what autism looks like, and I wanted readers to get to know him as a character first."
Three more books with autistic characters for young readers
Anything but Typical
(Simon & Schuster, 2009), by Nora Baskin.
Sixth-grade Jason is a deep thinker and excellent writer. If only he could navigate the world of "neurotypicals." 2009 ALA Schneider Family Award winner
Marcello and the Real World (Arthur A. Levine, 2009), by Francisco Stork
17-year-old Marcello is pressured by his dad to get a "real job," a challenge for a boy with Asperger's. 2009 ALA Schneider Family Award winner
Mockingbird (Philomel, April 2010), by Katherine Erskine
A 10-year-old girl with Asperger's deals with her brother's death in a school shooting. 2010 ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee
I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Verona resident Melissa Wardy got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.
Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.
At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.
Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"
After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?
As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.
The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.
I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.
Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.
This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"
Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.
This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.
"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."
"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."
As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.
Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.