Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis is the story of two girls. Emma-Jean who is the smartest but also the strangest girl in seventh grade. She has no friends but she doesn’t care. She’d rather observe her classmates from afar rather than involve herself in their emotional, illogical behavior. Colleen is the opposite. She has many friends, cares a great deal what other people think, and is possibly the nicest person ever. Nice to a fault in that she’s always worrying about how others feel.
The story is told in alternating viewpoints between the two and their lives collide when Emma-Jean walks into the girls’ bathroom where Colleen is sobbing. Although, Emma-Jean knows everything about everybody because she observes them so much, she normally wouldn’t involve herself in anybody else’s problem. But when Colleen asks for her help, Emma-Jean realizes that if she approaches Colleen’s problem logically, then she could easily solve it. Thus begins a domino effect, as Emma-Jean not only tries to solve Colleen’s problems but others as well.
Emma-Jean looks at the world in such a way that brings unpredictability to the story. Emma-Jean and Collen both have such strong and different voices. A fun book to read and I can’t wait to read the follow-up Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love. These are characters worth following.
What I found really interesting is not once is Emma-Jean labeled as being autistic. As an adult, it’s something that I identified and thus understand why Emma-Jean acted as she did. For a younger reader, they will certainly pick up on Emma-Jean’s supposed quirks. But will they transfer that recognition and empathy to their autistic classmates, friends, family and neighbors? Especially, as it could likely be the first experience that they have with such an individual. Another thing, that I found interesting was that the autistic lead character is female! Autism has a much higher rate of diagnosis in boys than girls. This is the first book I’ve read about autism where the main character isn’t male.
NOW. The tricky part. I wrote the above portion of the book review and pretty much called it done and didn’t go back to re-edit my thoughts. But I realized now that there is another talking point to this book. I came across this book somewhere on a list of books about autism (and of course, I can’t find the original list), which is why I wanted to read it, as April is National Autism Awareness Month.
But looking through other blogger reviews (and although a fair number, I’m sure were a select few of the entire whole), autism wasn’t a topic of discussion. They all used words such as, and I quote: “quirky, odd, distanced, highly logical, incredibly smart, not socially accepted, abnormal, different, not typical, socially inept, intellectually gifted, strange, master of observation, doesn’t always understand why people act the way they do, unique, rational, prefers to observe, the weird outsider, misjudges, does not comprehend social behaviors.”
I did come across Seven Impossible Things for Breakfast’s fantastic (and much better) review of the book and finally found autism named. But Jules says “I guess there are arguments goin’ around for her being autistic, but I don’t buy that.” SO where does that leave me? Well, of course, now I’m second guessing myself here.
Why did I think this character was on the Autism spectrum when everybody else didn’t identify her as such? The author certainly never gave Emma-Jean any type of diagnosis. Of the few interviews, I found nothing was mentioned. Nothing in black-and-white.
Have you read this book? What do you think? I really want to get others thoughts on this. Have you ever interpreted a character as one thing and they’re really not that way? Am I right or am I wrong? Does it even matter?! Is it left up to interpretation? Why do you think the author never gave Emma-Jean a diagnosis? Is she on the autism spectrum or no?
Links of interest: Lauren Tarshis website, more book blogger reviews. Did you know April is National Autism Awareness Month? Check out all my book reviews that address autism.
Genre: Middle grade fiction, approx ages 9-12.
Publisher: Puffin. May 15, 2008.
Paperback, 208 pages. ISBN 0142411507
Source copy: Library
Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree is available from your favorite independent bookstore, Powell’s, and Amazon.