Friday, June 12, 2009

Tish Cohen

A review of Inside Out Girl by Tish Cohen (Harper Collins, 2008).

The Inside Out Girl is Olivia, a 10-year-old with a non-verbal learning disability. But there are other candidates for that title in this book.

It could be Rachel, the single-parent, mother-of-two who is dating Olivia's father. Or it could be Janie, Rachel's 14-year-old daughter who is doing more than questioning her sexual orientation.

Rachel wins the title, in my view, as the protagonist of this novel. It is her emotional transformation that this story charts.

She begins as the publisher of Perfect Parenting magazine, a post she'd inherited from her father and grandfather (a patriarchal line, get it?).

Perfect Parenting provides lots of wholesome advice, but it's also going bankrupt. The real world with its real issues is catching up with Rachel in more ways than one.

I came to this book as a step-father of a nine-year-old with a non-verbal learning disability. I heard about it through an interview the author did, posted online.

An excerpt from that interview:

TSP: Nonverbal learning disability, or NLD, is not a commonly known disability. One of the wonderful aspects of reading good books is that they make us wiser, but also give us empathy hand-in-hand with that wisdom. For those who have yet to read Inside Out Girl, educate us a little about NLD and how you came to choose this particular disability for the main character in your book—the inspiring Rachel Berman, who really does have her insides out in full vulnerability to the often harsh world around her.

TISH: My close friend is a family therapist and once told me her favorite clients are the children with an Asperger’s-like condition called NLD (or Non-verbal Learning Disorder) because of their loving dispositions—naiveté, and utter inability to connect with other children. She loves that they talk too close, constantly knock things over, say the wrong thing, and still get lost on the way to the restroom in an office they’ve been coming to for five years. Often they can’t walk up the stairs and talk at the same time, their clothes are inside out and their lack of motor skills means they can’t brush their own teeth. If you tell them to jump in a lake, they probably will. Frustrating, to say the least.

But they will hug you until you weep. They not only wear their hearts on their sleeves, but on a neon sign above their heads. They see nothing wrong with marching straight up to the meanest clique in middle grade or the bully everyone fears and wrapping themselves around them in a full-body hug. And they cannot for the life of them see why they’re rejected.

I thought about what it would mean to have a child with NLD and the joy and pain that would entail. Then I wondered what it would be like to be a single parent like Rachel, with so much on her plate already, to consider bringing a child with such a condition into her life and family. It seemed a fascinating scenario.

It is. And Cohen has done a remarkable job capturing it.

For more on NLD, I recommend Marcia Brown Rubinstien's Raising NLD Superstars.

But what about the novel?

Well, it made me cry. There is a depth of feeling in this book, combined with deep intelligence, empathy and vision. It calls out "perfect parents" everywhere and reminds readers that difference is what makes us all interesting.

The story zips along, and some may find it a little too full of bad news. But there is also a lightness of spirit and lots of humour.

Read it while you nibble on a bowl of Lucky Charms.

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