Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a TreeEmma-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 websitemore 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.

12 comments


  1. I never considered Emma-Jean to be autistic, though I can see where you picked that up. (Was Sherlock Holmes autistic or just logical and really observant?) I think that sometimes, we’re too eager to label people as “things”, and not let them be people. Which is part of the reason I loved this book. Emma-Jean is quirky, and maybe is autistic, but her parents loved her for herself, as does the reader.

    on April 19th, 2010 at 10:03 am
  2. I read this one a couple of years ago and loved it. I never saw Emma-Jean as autistic, but then I saw reviews after I read that that mentioned she was. I think it’s because it was never mentioned in the book, where in other books with an autism spectrum character, it’s mentioned. Emma-Jean is just Emma-Jean. I kind of thought of her as a child who communicated more with adults and because of that and her parents she never saw a need to have friends the same age or understood them. She wa a mini-adult herself in some ways. I guess I thought of it that way because in some ways, I was more comfortable around adults than children during my elementary school years and had a hard time making friends because I was so shy. I thought of Emma-Jean the same way.

    on April 19th, 2010 at 4:19 pm
  3. As the parent of a child with autism, this book sounds intriguing … and one that I’ll definitely be picking up.

    The whole premise of the autism not being names reminds me of “Make Lemonade” by Virginia Euwer Wolff. (Have you read that? Highly recommended … review on my blog, if interested.) Wolff doesn’t come out and say what race the main character is and it is the sort of book where you think one thing initially … but then question your thinking and continue to wonder.

    on April 19th, 2010 at 7:36 pm
  4. Others have agreed with your and Jules’s interpretation.

    on April 19th, 2010 at 9:12 pm
  5. It does sound like Emma-Jean is on the autism spectrum based on your description. But many manage to get through, undiagnosed, and are just seen as being “odd”. I wonder if the author has ever discussed this — would be interesting to know whether this was intentional.

    on April 19th, 2010 at 9:26 pm
  6. Why the need to label Emma Jean? To put her in a tidy box that says “she has x, so that explains all about her”?

    Why would Emma Jean having that label make kids in a classroom more likely to have empathy/understanding for others with that label? Do the kids know that others have been labeled? Isn’t it a broader lesson to say, regardless of how a person fits a label, tolerate, understand, have compassion, whether its the kid in class you know has autism (because parents, teachers talk) or its the kid in the class who is different but doesn’t have a label?

    I read it and wondered. As I wonder if Temperance Brennan (TV show Bones) is on the spectrum. Or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. But that is more about me, as a relative of a child on the spectrum, looking to see adults on the spectrum depicted with whole lives.

    Not every quirky kid is autistic or on the spectrum. Not every kid who doesn’t sit still in class is ADD/ADHD. Not everyone who falls outside “typical” behavour can be explained by a label, nor should they.

    on April 20th, 2010 at 7:51 am
  7. Oh! and on a more cynical level, some readers/parents stay away from “issue books.” If this was described as “Emma Jean who has Aspergers” instead of “Emma Jean who is quirky,” parents would turn away because they want a “fun” book for their kids/ not something serious / “she’s not interested in reading that….”

    on April 20th, 2010 at 7:56 am
  8. No – labeling somebody certainly doesn’t explain everything about a person- nor was I trying to imply that is the case. But as a reader, it was a label that I, based on my preconceived notions, placed on her. Seeing the book on a autism recommended book list and reading it on the heels of Born on a Blue Day certainly played into how I approached the book and the character. Had I not known this beforehand, would I have made that leap? I really don’t know.

    The more I think about it, I really liked how the author didn’t attempt to put any labels on Emma-Jean and I think that this plays to the book strengths. I think that all literature has the ability to teach others about life experiences that are not their own. What this book illustrations is that not everybody thinks just like us, and I believe that that understanding can translate to how we treat others.

    on April 20th, 2010 at 8:38 am
  9. Okay, I have not read this book so have nothing to offer specifically about this character, but I wanted to point out that “labels” do not have to be bad things. I have a son with ADHD and a brother-in-law with autism (who wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood) and labels can bring understanding, educational, and community. Labels can also be helpful among children, who are not usually compassionate or kind. (Oh the heartache my little boy has been through!) Having some sort of handle for “the weird kid” can help kids who are trying daily to sort through impossible masses of information make the jump from judgment to understanding.

    Are labels always good. Absolutely not. They can be awful. I’ve struggled all my life with my self-imposed labels of ‘ugly’ and ‘shy.’ But if I teach my son to own some of his labels, like ADHD, and that that label is NOT bad, I can hand him a stepping stone instead of a mill stone. His label can be a tool.

    I worry I’m not making sense as I try to type my scattered thoughts while wrestling cranky babies…I just want to throw out that this subject isn’t just black and white.

    on April 20th, 2010 at 11:35 am
  10. I LOVED these books!!
    Autism really didn’t occur to me… partly because I identified with her! I was always better at talking to adults than the other kids… and I think part of it was being an only child for years.
    If she is autistic, she’s pretty high-functioning.

    on April 20th, 2010 at 1:39 pm
  11. This is a very interesting discussion. I am quite interested in reading this book now. I do have to say that although I think labels can be detrimental, I have found in myself that in some cases they are helpful. I became aware recently that a teenage boy in my neighborhood was diagnosed with autism as a child. Knowing that helped me see him in a new light. I had always thought of him as a strange kid with weird quirks who is socially inept. When I realized that he had autism it completely changed my view of him. I admire him for how well he does. Having said that, I’m sure I come across as a real jerk but if I feel that way others probably do to, even if it is wrong.

    on April 23rd, 2010 at 12:06 pm
  12. Great book. I think it’s cool that there is no mention of autism. Would have made it seem more like an after school special.

    on May 27th, 2010 at 7:44 am

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