Cynthia Lord’s children’s novel Rules begins with the central character Catherine, age twelve, babysitting her eight-year-old brother David on the first day of summer vacation. We soon learn that babysitting David is a common task for Catherine, as David is autistic and must be watched closely at all times. Catherine constantly makes up rules for her brother, such as “if someone says ‘hi,’ you say ‘hi’ back,” and “no toys in the fish tank,” to try to help her brother behave more normally. Throughout the novel, one of these “rules” heads each chapter, and more are scattered throughout the text; we also learn that Catherine writes all the “rules” down at the back of the sketchbook she carries everywhere.
On the first day of summer vacation, Catherine is watching the movers unload her new neighbors’ belongings at the house next door. She is excited because the house’s previous owner told her the new neighbors have a twelve-year-old girl. Catherine, whose best friend Melissa spends the entire summer out of town with her dad, is eager to meet the potential new friend next door. Before the neighbors arrive, however, it is time for David’s Occupational Therapy session—or OT, as the family calls it—and Catherine accompanies her mother and brother. Catherine explains that she always tags along because while David is in OT, she gets her mother’s full attention, which is a rare commodity for her.
After therapy, the three return home—David and Catherine’s father is due home at five to take David to the video store, his favorite place.David, who clings to rules and exact statements such as “Dad will be home at five,” waits on the porch and counts down the seconds until his father arrives; Catherine, on the other hand, has long since stopped expecting her father to be on time. When their dad is in fact late, David begins to scream; the neighbor girl happens to be outside her house and notices. She asks “Is he okay?” then heads back inside without introducing herself or asking Catherine’s name. Catherine is dismayed that her first interaction with the neighbor, like most events in Catherine’s life, has centered on her unusual little brother.
At the clinic where David attends therapy, Catherine draws a picture of another boy in the waiting room, Jason Morehouse, whom she estimates to be about fourteen or fifteen. Jason is confined to a wheelchair and, while he can understand others’ speech, he himself can only communicate by pointing at cards containing a word and matching picture. Jason’s mother notices Catherine drawing him and becomes upset, but Jason intervenes, telling her he likes the picture, and Catherine gives it to him. At the next therapy session, Mrs. Morehouse tells Catherine that Jason has the picture on his bedroom wall. In response, Catherine begins to consider Jason’s situation, wondering what it would like to “have to wait for someone to make a word” before she could use it. Catherine offers to make some new word cards for Jason, and she takes some blank cards home with her.
Catherine makes words Jason can truly express himself with, like “Gross!” “Awesome!” and “Stinks a big one!” Jason is thrilled. Catherine takes an entire stack of blank cards to make more words, and she begins to collect words for the cards in her sketchbook. She finds herself writing words that reflect whatever she is feeling at the moment—for example, when she resents having to babysit David yet again, she writes “Yeah, right” and “whatever.”
Finally, the new neighbor, Kristi, comes over to visit Catherine. However, Catherine’s mom is working at home and asks her to watch David a little longer. Catherine is furious and terrified that David’s antics will ruin her potential new friendship. Sure enough, David becomes distraught because the tape has come unwound from one of his audio cassettes, and when Catherine’s guinea pigs start to squeal, David progresses to all-out shrieking. Kristi sympathizes, saying that even “regular” little brothers are difficult to deal with, and Catherine feels the word regular “snarling” in her stomach.
Soon after this visit, David and Catherine arrive home from...
(The entire section is 1730 words.)
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