Friday, October 28, 2016

Blindsided! A Blind Guide to Normal by Beth Vrabel

"Seriously, though, guys. Try to hold it together without me. Someone will need to keep an eye out the newbies.

"Shall I save the pupil for you?" said Alice, slicing the cake.

"Absolutely," I grinned and passed out slices of my giant farewell eyeball cake.

"I can't help it," I said. "I'm just so... I can't wait for next year, to get back to normal. Be surrounded by normal--" I bit off the stupid thing I was going to say, but it was too late. Alice's face flushed again. Man, I can be such a jerk sometimes.

It should have hit me then--being celebrated like a departing rock star. Because here's the joke for you. Where can a cocky, one-eyed ginger be the coolest cat around?

Punchline: Only at a school for the blind.

And maybe not even there, given the way he's bombed his farewell address to his classmates. With one artificial eye (Artie for short) and partial sight in the other, Richie Ryder Raymond hopes that his talent for the quick quip will see him through his transfer from Addison School for the Blind to a normal, that is, regular eighth grade class at Papuaville Middle, home of the Fighting Guinea Pigs. With a name like that, the comic possibilities seem endless.

But it doesn't begin well, as he squints his way through the halls, trying to see the room numbers and maybe spot the gorgeous girl next door.

Yep. Room 206! I guess I was being too self-congratulatory to notice the love of my life was standing beside me. I ran right into Jocelyn. She fell backward into the boy behind her.

"Hey!" "Watch where you're going!" a guy barked. "I don't think he saw me," said Jocelyn. "Of course, he saw you!" the guy said. He put his arm around her.

"No, man, I didn't!" The guy jerked his chin at me. He had brilliant green eyes and the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen on a boy. I blurted out. "Do you have to brush your eyelashes? Because they are mega, mega long!"

"You're a
freak!" Lash Boy hissed as everyone laughed. "What the heck is wrong with you?"

A hand clamped down on my shoulder and Lash boy's. Oh, great. Perfect way to meet my homeroom teacher.

"I am ashamed of how you would treat a differently-abled student!" she yelled at Lash Boy.

Ryder is outed as "differently abled," and although he tries to explain what happened, his teacher tells Lash Boy (a.k.a., Jocelyn's boyfriend Max) that she's calling his parents. Ryder's hopes of slipping in under the radar are dashed, and now Max, the class golden boy, will have it in for him forever, which is not good, given that Ryder already has a crush on Jocelyn.

And that's just the beginning of his problem with being "normal." Living for the year with Gramps while his dad is doing research in Alaska is not easy. Gramps seems stuck in the 1970s, still grieving over the death of his wife at the birth of Ryder's dad. Her weird monument, a stone horse, stands in the middle of the front yard, decorated for all seasons and holidays, and his little house is decorated in stereotypical seventies style. Gramps plays disco constantly in his old Oldsmobile, and talks about Ryder's grandmother as if she's still alive. Ryder's mom must find that a bit creepy, too, because she takes to working unusually long hours to avoid being there whenever she can.

But Jocelyn lives next door, and Ryder soon learns that her little brother died in a fire and that she was rescued by Max when they were eight years old. Adding that to the fact that Max is considered a hero, a real Mr. Nice Guy at school, Ryder figures his chances with Jocelyn are dimmer than his vision.

And Ryder’s hopes of getting to normal don’t grow any brighter when he and Gramps walk into an argument outside Home Depot, where Max is fund-raising for a project for grief counseling.

Gramps and I were each downing our second hot dogs when the fight began. I heard “Max, I don’t want to talk about this!” all but screamed by Jocelyn. “I’m so sick of your nonstop gotta-help-everyone-all-the-time crap.”

“Crap?” Max said, pleading. “Come on, Jocelyn. It’s been years. Your brother would want us to keep other kids from going through what we.... His voice went thick with passion. “Just let yourself remember!”

I punched Max Waters in the face.

And then Max gets even by tripping Ryder in the cafeteria. Artie the artificial eye pops out, skitters across the floor, followed by retreating girls screeching and guys kicking it around the room. And for the punchline, at first Ryder finds that he’s got no joke, nothing.

Artie comes to rest in front of his homeroom teacher, Miss Singer, who picks it up, her pity radiating from her, and looks around for Ryder.

I slammed a big old NOPE sign on the pain stew in my gut. I reached for my eye. I climbed on top of a chair. Cupping Artie in my hand, I rubbed it on the hem of my shirt. I slowly, slowly, slowly popped the eye back into place.

Then, arms out, like this was all a huge theatrical joke, I bowed–-three times in fact.

It seems that nobody, not Gramps, or Mom and Dad, or Max and Jocelyn, nobody is really normal. They all have things they don’t want to think about. But sometimes you have to look at those things with both eyes open. In her sequel to A Blind Guide to Stinkville, the forthcoming A Blind Guide to
(Sky Pony Press, 2016), Ryder finds that maybe normal is accepting a new normal that includes anger, sadness, and loss. And they’re all okay. With a moving cathartic conclusion, Vrabel fashions a coming-of-age story that middle readers will never forget.

Ryder's honest first person voice is funny, yet poignant, one that gets the reader right inside him, seeing the world through his eye. Each character has a way to hide, something inside he or she try to cover up and forget. Jocelyn has her scars hidden under long sleeves, the outward reminders of her guilt for her little brother's death, Max has his own secret of starting that fatal fire, and Ryder's parents have their own fears that his cancer might return. Gramps has his grief for his wife and the signs of her existence he can't bear to remove from his life--all things that make them different, yet make them normal human beings. Says School Library Journal, "A sweet, thoughtful, and funny read--a heartfelt tale without the typical saccharine coating."

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