The Space We’re In by Katya Balen

National Autism Awareness Month, Apr. 1 -30, 2021 

The Space We’re In

Katya Balen, Author

Margaret Ferguson Books, Fiction, October 2019

Pages: 208

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Brothers, Autism Spectrum, Family Relationships, Coding, Loss, School, Friendship

Synopsis:

Frank is ten. He loves soccer, codes, riding his bike, and playing with his friends. His brother Max is five. Max on eats foods that are beige or white, hates baths, loud noises, bright lights and if he has to wear a T-shirt that isn’t gray with yellow stripes me melts down down down.

Max is autistic, and Frank longs for the brother he was promised by his parents before Max was born — someone who was supposed to be his biggest fan so he could be the best big brother in the world. Instead, Frank has trouble navigating Max’s behavior and their relationship. But when tragedy strikes, Frank finds a way to try to repair their fractured family, and in doing so learns to love Max for who he is.

Why I like this book:

Katya Balen has written an emotional and sensitive novel about a 10-year-old boy who deals with the challenges of living with a younger autistic brother who is the center of his parents’ attention. Narrated by Frank, readers will gain insight into how deeply affected he is by Max. He feels resentment, anger, and the fatigue of living in a home where he feels dismissed. They will also hear from a Frank who loves Max and is ashamed when he doesn’t stand up for him with school bullies.

The plot is distinctly realistic and then tension is palpable. There is a tragedy (no spoilers) and the story is so sad.  But don’t stop reading. Frank may be vulnerable, but he’s also determined and resilient. Readers will ride Frank’s roller coaster as his world spins out of control, but they will watch his relationship with Max slowly grow as he helps his family move forward in a very creative way.

I love the special bond between Frank and his mother. She keeps the family together, unlike her husband who has difficulty with the chaotic family dynamics. Frank and his mom create their own private way of communicating with each other. They silently tap Morse code messages into each other’s hands. His mother is also a talented artist, but stopped painting after Max was born.  Frank likes to draw and has inherited some of her talent, which is revealed at the end of the story at a time when he uses his talent to help his family heal.

Frank’s love of coding is important part of the story and I was thrilled that the author wrote each chapter title in the “cypher code.” Readers will have fun challenging themselves to break the code. Frank is also fascinated with “the golden ratio” that links space, nature, and people — the spiral galaxy, the swirl of a hurricane, a snail’s shell, and the shape of our ears.

Frank also has a strong relationship with his friends Ahmed and Jamie. They have a special wilderness spot they ride their bikes to and it is the perfect escape for Frank. In the woods they tear off their shirts, rub mud on their faces, swing on ropes, build a den, chase each other with chunks of mud, howl like wolves, and laugh and laugh and laugh!  Before they leave they always scratch ” 23 9 12 4″ (wild) into the earth and their initials, 10 (Jamie)  6 (Frank) and 1 (Ahmed).

This book is an important story for youth who are living with a sibling on the autism spectrum. It’s also a book for parents to read with their kids. It’s a complex situation for families, when they have a child that requires so much attention.  This book will help encourage discussions.

Katya Balen has worked in a number of special schools for autistic children. She now runs Mainspring Arts, a nonprofit that organizes creative projects for neurodivergent people. The Space We’re In is her debut novel. She lives outside of London with her boyfriend and their unbelievably lazy rescue dog.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library book.

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Black Brother, Black Brother

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Author

Little Brown and Company, Fiction, Mar. 3, 2020

Suitable for ages:

Themes: Fencing, African Americans, Brothers, Racism, Preparatory schools, Family life, Friendship

Opening: I wish I were invisible. Wearing Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak or Frodo Baggins’s Elvish ring. Whether shrouded in fabric or slipping on gold, it wouldn’t matter to me. I’d be gone. Disappeared.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

“Framed. Bullied. Disliked. But I know I can still be the best.”

Sometimes, 12-year-old Donte wishes he were invisible. As one of the few black boys at Middlefield Prep, most of the students don’t look like him. They don’t like him either. Dubbing him “Black Brother,” Donte’s teachers and classmates make it clear they wish he were more like his lighter-skinned brother, Trey.

When he’s bullied and framed by the captain of the fencing team, “King” Alan, he’s suspended from school, arrested and taken to jail for something he didn’t do. Just because he is black.

Terrified, searching for a place where he belongs, Donte joins a local youth center and meets former Olympic fencer Arden Jones. With Arden’s help, he begins training as a competitive fencer, setting his sights on taking down the fencing team captain, no matter what.

As Donte hones his fencing skills and grows closer to achieving his goal, he learns the fight for justice is far from over. Now Donte must confront his bullies, racism, and the corrupt systems of power that led to his arrest.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, Black Brother, Black Brother is a careful examination of the school-to-prison pipeline and follows one boy’s fight against racism and his empowering path to finding his voice.

Why I like this book:

Jewell Park Rhodes’s Black Brother, Black Brother is a timely, intelligent and well-executed novel for children and adults. Rhodes masterfully captures the pain of racial injustice for a 12-year-old black boy attending an all-white prep school outside of Boston. It is also a story about hope, believing in yourself, and choosing a higher path.

The characters are multi-layered and complex. The bond between brothers Donte and Trey is strong. Donte’s skin is like their African-American mother, and Trey’s is like their Norwegian father. Trey is a star athlete at school; Donte is not.  But what really stands out is the love and support they share as brothers. Their bond is unbreakable. And their parents are right there with them. Then there is a privileged  Middlefield Prep student, Alan, who punishes Donte for being darker than his brother. Alan is filled with so much hate and taunts Donte by calling him “Black Brother.”

Black Brother, Black Brother is also an engaging sports story. Readers will find fencing fascinating, as it requires skill, focus, honor, respect, patience and intuition.  Learning the sport from Arden Jones, an African-American national fencing champion, helps Donte find his voice and embrace who he is. For me, Donte’s relationship with “Coach” is the best part of the story. And it becomes clear that both coach and student need each other. They practice at the Boston Boys and Girls Club along with black twins, Zion and Zarra. Trey joins their small team in support his brother and learn the sport.

This is a compelling book to use to jump start the discussion about racism, privilege, and bias in our country — especially at school. Readers will be able to gain insight into the everyday experiences of their friends of color. It will help them develop empathy for others and hopefully encourage them to stand up for fairness and respect when they observe injustice at school and in their communities. If you are reading this book, it means you can make a difference! I hope this book becomes required reading in middle schools because it offers an opportunity for important dialogue among students.

*This book hit home for me, because we adopted a 13-year-old son from India in the 1985. He was darker than many black people and had shiny black hair. Everyday he dealt with questions like, “What are you?” Fortunately some white neighbor boys his age befriended him and had his back with school bullies. They remain his best friends today. As a successful adult, he still deals with racial profiling.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor, Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the New York Times bestselling Ghost Boys, as well as Bayou Magic and Towers Falling.  She has also written many award-winning novels for adults. When she’s not writing, Jewell visits schools to talk about her books and teaches writing at Arizona State University.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library book.