October 05, 2017

On the Spectrum

Written by Jennifer Gold
Second Story Press
336 pp. 
Ages 13-18
September 2017

The push for books that reflect diversity has been extending more recently to include those with characters on the spectrum or with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as does On the Spectrum.  But, unlike the recently reviewed Slug Days by Sara Leach (Pajama Press, 2017), On the Spectrum takes a different approach, placing the character on the spectrum in a secondary role, as a step-brother to the teen protagonist, thereby providing a different perspective to life on the spectrum. 

In On the Spectrum, the protagonist Clara is a sixteen-year-old whose issue is orthorexia i.e., an unhealthy preoccupation with how much and what she eats.  After a social media faux pas and the intervention of social workers disturbed by her ballerina mother’s own extreme healthy lifestyle fixation, Clara heads to Paris to spend the summer with her Dad, his new wife Mag and her half-brother Alastair, a six-year-old child on the spectrum.  While visiting Parisian tourist attractions and adhering to Alastair’s routines, Clara begins to learn about her little brother’s behaviours and needs, like his weighted vest and use of noise-cancelling headphones to help him calm, and starts to really care about him.  Conversely, Alastair is learning about his sister, putting together the pieces of what he overhears from his parents’ discussions and interpreting her words and actions, convinced that, though Clara denies it, she must be on a spectrum herself, on an eating disorder spectrum.  Complicating matters for Clara is Alastair’s friendship with Michel, the son of a local baker, who whips up amazing pastries and meals with Alastair and is convinced he can help Clara enjoy food once again.  

Young adult author Jennifer Gold, whose previous books Soldier Doll (Second Story Press, 2014) and Undiscovered Country (Second Story Press, 2017) have been reviewed on CanLit for LittleCanadians, gives Alastair voice through Clara’s narration; only through his sister’s interpretations do we hear what Alastair says and does.  It’s still a valid voice but it reads very differently from the first-person narrative of Slug Days or Spaghetti is Not a Finger Food (Jodi Carmichael, Little Pickle Press, 2013), both of which are written for younger audiences.  But then again, On the Spectrum is Clara’s story and Alastair is akin to her sidekick who is there to help steer and illuminate her thinking, which he does so effortlessly both about his autism and her issues.  He may be on the titular spectrum but apparently Clara is on one as well.  The spectrum, whatever it may be based upon, is broad, indicating that there is no one way of being autistic or having eating issues.  Even being different is different for everyone, and Jennifer Gold's Clara and Alastair and all those in-between make that abundantly clear.


(A version of this review was originally written for and paid for by Quill & Quire but space limitations prevented its inclusion in the recent October issue.)

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