Susie Wilde: Asperger’s lessons in audio books

Apr. 27, 2013 @ 12:39 PM

In recent months, I’ve listened to two remarkable audios, Matthew Dick’s “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” and Clare Vanderpool’s “Navigating Early.” These two very different books find commonality in that each has one character with Asperger’s syndrome – which is often considered a high-functioning form of autism – and a second who gains a unique view of the world because of the unusual perceptions. Despite marketing, both will speak to young adult listeners.
“Memoirs” has been marketed to adults and came to me last summer from a student to whom I’d loaned an audio from my endless stack of intriguing, but unheard, audio books. She returned it after a week saying she couldn’t stop listening and had even sent a fan letter to the author, the first she’d written since she wrote to a “Sesame Street” character when she was a child. I was similarly immediately and completely captivated by Dick’s “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend,” read by Matthew Brown (Macmillan Audiobook, 9 CDs, 11 hours). The story of 8-year-old Max Delaney, a young boy with Asperger’s, is told from the perspective of Budo, his imaginary friend of five years. Budo is grateful to Max’s great imagination for it gives him a body with no missing parts and a life span that seems much longer than many other imaginary friends. Listeners understand quickly this may be a necessary dependency, but the story is not merely a fascinating construct, but a marvelous picture of a potentially doomed relationship. Budo can travel without Max, has intelligence even greater than that of his human friend and can pass through doors so that he can be next to Max when needed. Budo sees Max’s differences—his preference for people to be “far away” and his anxiety when they touch him, or “sarcasm him.” The author makes the two limited characters and their interdependence real and extraordinary. Budo fears Max’s meltdowns when he becomes “locked,” his need to fight his way out of difficult situations, like being interrupted by a fifth-grade bully while he’s taking a “bonus poop” at school. While Budo can’t pick up a pencil, or be seen or heard by others, he knows something’s amiss when Max gets in Mrs. Patterson’s car one day and disappears. But how will he tell those who can help? Matthew Brown’s narration has just the right emphasis for reinforcing believability—from Max’s flat utterances and Budo’s confusion at all things human. Brown uses an erudite tone for Budo’s almost scientific analysis of humans’ limitations. But emotions strengthen as Budo worries for Max and his own future. His increasingly frantic responses increase the tension, transcend the impossible and create two unlikely heroes.
Clare Vanderpool’s “Navigating Early” Listening Library 6 CDs, 7.5 hours) is read by Robbie Daymond with Mark Bramhall. Cassandra Campbell reads the author’s note at book’s end. Vanderpool sprang on the children’s book scene when she won a 2010 Newbery Award for her complex and intriguing historical novel “Moon Over Manifest.” “Navigating Early” is again historical, and just as layered, but more haunting. The hero is Jack Baker, who’s at sea after his mother dies suddenly, and his rigid father returns home to Kansas from World War II, quickly disposing all her belongings and shipping Jack off to boarding school in Maine. As if things aren’t strange enough Jack reticently enters a friendship with Early Auden. Early floats in and out of classes, is a brilliant mathematician and lives a life both fantastical and logical. A series of situations put Jack and Early on a quest along the Appalachian Trail, an adventure guided by Early, who has aligned the numeric sequence of irrational pi into a story that links incongruent elements like stars, a gigantic black bear, and pirates. He believes following the story will lead to finding his brother, who everyone else knows was killed in World War II. Jack is by turns disgusted, discounting and finally amazed by Early’s viewpoint and truths. How can you trust a boy who counts and sorts jellybeans for calm, knows you can only listen to Billie Holiday on rainy days, and makes nonsensical predictions based on a narrative based on numbers? Strangely, Early’s odd predictions come to pass and the non-emotional Early has wisdom that goes far beyond Jack’s imagination. Vanderpool’s genius comes in her interspersing of adventure, larger-than-life secondary characters, and braiding several strands of the novel. Wisely, the audio differentiates with two narrators. Mark Bramhall reads the bits of the pi story, his voice a combination of solidness and mysticism that does justice to mythic elements and the themes of the larger story. It’s Robbie Daymond’s talents that carry the bulk of the story. He captures Early’s dispassionate tones one minute and in the next, Jack’s frustrations and disbelief. His reading accents the story’s tension and makes for a gripping listen.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website,