Monday, December 10, 2018

Book Review: A BOY CALLED BAT by Elana K Arnold

First Paragraph(s): Bixby Alexander Tam stared into the refrigerator, trying to decide what to eat. He knew that the longer he took, the more energy he was wasting, and Bixby Alexander Tam did not like to waste energy. But he also didn’t like to eat leftovers, or cheese that had to be sliced, or any of the yogurt flavors in the fridge. 
“Bat, close the refrigerator door!” yelled his sister, Janie, from the kitchen table, where she sat cutting out pictures from a pile of old magazines. Janie, he was sure, had eaten all the lemon and vanilla yogurts. And she knew he only liked the creamy ones, not the fruit-on-the-bottom kind. 
“Bat” was what almost everyone called Bixby Alexander Tam, for a couple of reasons: first, because the initials of his name—B, A, and T—spelled Bat. 
But there were maybe other reasons. Bat’s sensitive hearing, for one. He didn’t like loud sounds. What was so unusual about that? And if Janie’s old earmuffs happened to make an outstanding muffling device, was it that funny if he liked to wear them? 
There was also the way he sometimes flapped his hands, when he was nervous or excited or thinking about something interesting. Some of the kids at school seemed to think that was hilarious. And, of course, bats have wings, which they flap. 
So, between the initials and the earmuffs and the hand flapping, the nickname had stuck. 
And, truthfully, Bat didn’t mind. Animals were his very favorite thing. Better even than vanilla yogurt.

Esteemed Reader, I don't know if I can fully express to you just how truly and deeply I love this book. I know, I know, I love every book I review and I tell you to read all of them. Well, honestly I do love most of them and you should read them.

I'm not apologizing for liking too many books. I haven't run this free blog about middle grade fiction for all these years because I don't love middle grade books. Speaking of which, this blog has now spawned a YouTube channel and a podcast, which you should totally check out. I'm super excited about it.

Esteemed Reader, I really, really, REALLY love A Boy Called Bat. I love it so much I've read it multiple times this year and cried most every time. I'll try to make it through this review without crying, but I probably won't. Some books find you when you most need to read them, and this book found me. 

If Elana K Arnold ever came on my podcast, I expect my questions for her would be mostly, "Why are you so awesome?" and "How did you write the exact book my heart most needed?" and "Magic writer lady, I love you." After that, I imagine, would follow a period of extremely tense and awkward silence. So perhaps it's better that Elana K Arnold will be here to provide written answers for the 7 Questions on Thursday:)

And that will be it for 2018. I can't top an interview with Elana K Arnold, so we may as well call it a year. And then January 1st I'll do my usual year in retrospect post and we'll have some fabulous new guests on the podcast/TV show thingee, some swell guest posts, and I'll even publish some new middle grade books. It will be good times.

And that's it's. You can skip the review part of this if you want and just go buy your copy of the book. What follows is mostly gushing for one of my most favorite things.

As the first paragraph of A Boy Called Bat makes clear, Bixby Alexander Tam is not a neurotypical protagonist. During my discussion with Mary Kole, she was adamant that the key to hooking a middle grade reader is providing an interesting character. I can't think of a better example of this principal in action than in the book's opening above. 

Some will say this is a book about autism, and certainly it's a good book to prompt a discussion about autism. I would say this is a book about love (as in I LOVE it so much), but more on that momentarily. Without question, this is a book that should be read aloud in every classroom in the country as it's an excellent guide to understand the neuro-diverse people living among us

It is said that if you've met someone with autism, you've met one person with autism, as the spectrum is vast. I have no doubt some of you reading this and some of us writing it are somewhere on the spectrum.

Bat isn't just a kid with autism, he's Bat, and by the end of Arnold's story, you will love him because he's the one and only Bat, not the autistic kid. Although, undeniably, Bat sees the world differently than other children and is particularly bad at picking up on social ques that are obvious to everyone else:

Mr. Grayson came over. He was wearing his bright-orange tennis shoes today. Bat liked it when he wore those shoes. It was like he was wearing suns on his feet. 
“What’s the problem, friends?” he asked. 
“Bat embarrassed Lucca,” Israel said, really loudly, making Bat wish he had his earmuffs. They were in his backpack, on his back. 
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to embarrass her, did you, Bat?” asked Mr. Grayson. There were sixteen eyelets on each of his shoes, Bat counted. Eight on the left side, eight on the right side. That made thirty-two eyelets. 
“Bat, can you look up at my face?” Mr. Grayson asked. Bat shook his head. Thirty-two eyelets. His own shoes had half as many. Sixteen eyelets, four on each side of each shoe. 
Mr. Grayson sighed. “Okay, Bat, go sit at your table.” 
Bat wondered if anyone in the class had more eyelets in their shoes than Mr. Grayson. He kept his eyes on shoes as he walked through the classroom. Nope. No one did.

Perhaps the greatest feat Elana K Arnold pulls off in A Boy Called Bat, and she pulls off several, is that she creates in Bat a character who is completely believable and empathetic in every way. Bat does some things during the course of the story that are annoying and obnoxious and it's not hard to understand why the people surrounding Bat become impatient with him.

But for all that, the reader will see the world from Bat's perspective and understand his side of things. We will root for Bat and want to see how he handles usually simple situations with his unusually complicated mind. We will look forward to future stories in this series.  

Arnold's book is an incredible exercise in empathy that works so very well in part because its plot is deceptively simple. But don't let Arnold's mastery of craft fool you. This story only seems simple because it's so impeccably well constructed that its reading is effortless, but I'm certain its creation was anything but. I'd love to know how many drafts Arnold went through to nail every aspect of this story, and she does have to nail them all to give her readers the emotional payoff she's building toward.

A Boy Called Bat is a love story, one that works on multiple levels. But at it's simplest, most basic level, this is the story of a boy and his love for a skunk:

“Is she okay?” Janie asked. 
“I wish I could say she is,” Mom answered. “I wasn’t able to save the mother, or the other baby kits. Only this one lived. I was able to check the mother for diseases, though, and luckily she wasn’t sick, which is a good sign the kit isn’t sick, either.” 
“That’s awesome,” Bat said. 
“Bat!” said Janie, loud and sharp. The kit twitched and shifted, scared by Janie’s voice. “How can you say it’s awesome? The mom died! The other babies died!” 
Bat didn’t mean that it was awesome that the other skunks had died. Of course that wasn’t awesome. He’d meant that it was awesome that this kit had lived. 
But it wasn’t worth it to try to explain to Janie what he’d meant. She usually misunderstood Bat. Most everyone did. 
“Can I?” Bat reached out for the kit, wanting so badly to hold him that his fingers twitched. 
“We can’t keep him,” Mom warned. “There’s a wild animal rescue center that we can give him to in about a month, but they’re too busy to take him just yet. So we can help him get bigger and stronger before we hand him over to the experts. They’ll raise him until he’s ready to be released into the wild, when he’s about five months old.” Then she passed the tiny kit, wrapped in towels, into Bat’s arms.

You'd have to be made of stone not to root for a lonely boy who finds love for a skunk. And we see Bat come to life and get motivated by this new love as surely as any protagonist in a more traditional love story. He researches skunks, emails a leading skunk expert, and schemes to convince his mother to allow him to keep Thor, the skunk kit, forever.

There's plenty of opposition for Bat to overcome, the most chief obstacle being his own neuro-diverse self. Can he stay focused on the baby skunk long term or will he forget his pet and add a burden to his single mother veterinarian mom who already has her hands full with the sometimes challenging rearing of Bat himself. Bat never wavers in his conviction that he should be the one to take of Thor, but those around him have understandable concerns.

The plot itself will not surprise any regular middle grade readers, but that's not the point. In my fiction workshops, I've taught that the secret to a good story is either a complex plot with a relatable character, or a simple plot with a complex character. A Boy Called Bat is an excellent example of the later.

But this is a book that works on multiple levels and though Bat and Thor are always front and center, Arnold deftly creates a slew of three-dimensional characters surrounding them, each personally impacted by Bat's growth as a person capable of expressing love. The character who most moved me was not Bat, but Bat's mother, who has a wonderful moment at the end of the story I won't spoil, but I could hardly read it because my vision was so clouded by tears of happiness for her and for Bat.

Although Arnold never flat out states the significance of Bat's connection to Thor, she hints that some of it is wrapped up in his feelings regarding his parents divorce--for it's his weekends at his father's apartment that take him away from his beloved skunk. And there's a boy in Thor's class who might like to be Bat's friend. Bat might not be ready to be a friend... although if he can feel deeply for a skunk, maybe anything is possible.

A Boy Called Bat is a book about love, the characters who love Bat and make his dream possible. But more, it's about the people Bat loves, even if he doesn't express that love conventionally:

Bat loved braiding Janie’s hair, even though he usually wasn’t very good at hand things. He liked the feeling of the damp, heavy hair; he liked organizing it into a series of smaller, neatly contained braids; he liked feeling close to Janie like this, by helping her and touching her, without having to have a big conversation that might turn into a fight. 
Getting along with people was hard for Bat. Figuring out what they meant when they said something, or when they made certain faces at him . . . People were complicated. But braiding was easy.

If I made the laws of the world, I'd insist a copy of A Boy Called Bat be made available in every pediatrician's office. Parents who's children have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum need to read this book. Siblings of such children and their classmates need to read this book. Really, everyone needs to read this book, and I so glad it was available for me to read when I needed it.

A Boy Called Bat is a modern classic and should be read by everyone. Do not miss this story and keep tissues close at hand as you read it. I love it so much and I'm so happy to share it with you, Esteemed Reader.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from A Boy Called Bat:

“Hi, Bat,” Israel said. “Do you think it’ll rain?” 
“Maybe,” said Bat. “Well, eventually, yes, but today, maybe.”

“Be careful, sport,” said Dad, which was a dumb thing to say because the hot chocolate was already spilled and being careful now wouldn’t unspill it.

Her hair was damp from the shower, and she was wearing her favorite pajamas, the ones with all the unicorns. Each unicorn was doing something different; one rocked out with a guitar, another was reading a book, another wore a chef’s hat and was flipping eggs in a pan. The only thing they had in common was that they were all unicorns. 
“Janie, did you know that a herd of unicorns is called a blessing?” Bat asked. 
“Yes, Bat, of course I know that. Every time I wear these pajamas you tell me that.” 
“I didn’t know if you remembered,” Bat said.

As Thor had his breakfast, the sky turned violet and pink, then orangey red. The tree’s trunk lightened from black to brown and its leaves transformed to green. The first birds called louder, waking up their friends, and they became a chorus of song.

The Sugar Shack was an exceptional candy store. It had bins full of M&M’s separated into colors, so if you wanted exactly eleven greens and eleven blues, but no yellows, reds, or oranges (as Bat did), you could get exactly that.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

1 comment:

Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.