American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2019 REVIEW
by Beth Vrabel
Reviewed by Deborah Kendrick
From the Editor: Deborah Kendrick is a freelance writer and journalist based in Cincinnati. She edits the magazine Access World, which covers assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired.
A Blind Guide to Stinkville
by Beth Vrabel
DB83027 (NLS BARD)
Sky Pony Publishers, 2015, 280 pages
A Blind Guide to Normal
by Beth Vrabel
DB90816 (NLS BARD)
Sky Pony Publishers, 2016, 272 pages
Any reader who has been at that thrilling and exhausting precipice, the one where you leap from childhood to adolescence, is sure to fall in love with Alice Confrey, the first-person narrator of A Blind Guide to Stinkville. In a voice so middle school that you can see and hear her right there in front of you, Alice introduces us in the first chapter to all the key elements and players in her life. Her dad has just moved the family from comfortable Seattle to a small town in South Carolina called Sinkville (everyone calls it Stinkville). We meet Alice's lovable dog, Tooter, so named by the family for his canine quirk of rubbing his butt on and farting on everything. We are introduced to Alice's big brother James, who is struggling with teenage issues of his own; and their mom, a former travel writer whose lifelong struggle with depression has resurfaced with the move to a new town.
Miserable and bored in their new situation, Alice gets James to take her to the library every day. We learn right away that Alice loves books, and we also learn that she is blind. Alice's blindness is due to albinism, so she has an added layer of difference because of her pale hair and her porcelain skin that has to be sheathed in sunscreen whenever she steps outside.
With a mom who isn't acting like her mom and a town that stinks, due to the pervasive stench of rotting wood from the paper mill that her dad now manages, Alice is not without a sense of humor. When the librarian mistakes her silly little dog for a guide dog, she goes along with the fun. However, she comes clean in a heartbeat as soon as she meets a possible new friend.
Alice lets us know from the outset that she is blind, but she quickly clarifies that she can see some things. She loves books above just about anything else, and she reads with the magnifying glass that always waits in her pocket.
Wistfully Alice notes that in this new town blindness is news to everyone around her. Things were very different in her community back in Seattle. "Everyone knew I was blind," she remembers. "It wasn't a big deal. It was accepted; the same way everyone accepted that Josh's mom always was last to pick him up from play dates and that Eliza's hair was too curly to lie flat around her face."
Beth Vrabel has power-packed so many important issues into one small book with so much natural grace that we are barely aware she has done it. We learn about blindness framed by the inner struggles of a person who just wants to fit in, to have blindness seen as a simple characteristic. Alice is twelve, but this struggle can be part of life at any age.
Blindness is only the background as Alice encounters an assortment of life issues. The book's clarity in revealing that truth, through Alice's eyes, is what makes it so memorable. As Alice makes new friends, finds new independence, and uncovers a talent for writing that connects her to her mom, she examines and navigates a host of similarly demanding challenges—depression, racial inequality, elder care, and death. Yet in no way is this book dismal or didactic. It is a story that quickly immerses you in the lives of its characters, and it has you cheering for their successes. There is joy and humor and learning and growth. This is a book that anyone can enjoy. Anyone with a personal connection to blindness should read and share it.
Few books for young people present blindness with authenticity. This book gets five stars for that and for a host of other sparkling qualities. Alice shows us, through a child's perceptions, what fools adults can make of themselves when they realize that someone is blind. She also leads us to feel, right along with her, the relief and joy when someone barely notices that her eyes don't work well. We feel her determination when she decides to find her own way, and we celebrate with her as her white cane and keen mind help her settle into a new town.
While not quite a sequel to A Blind Guide to Stinkville, Beth Vrabel's A Blind Guide to Normal continues the exploration of blindness, this time through another character and another eye condition. We meet Ryder at the end of Stinkville, when Alice and her parents visit a school for the blind. At the outset of this second book, Ryder has left the residential school, having mastered the skills of blindness. He is about to begin seventh grade in a public school while living with a grandfather he has never had a chance to know. The book opens with Ryder saying goodbye to Alice, who is not quite finished with the residential school; she has become his best friend. Ryder is the most popular kid at the school for the blind, always cracking jokes about having only one eye, and popping out his prosthetic eye for laughs. He anticipates continuing his reign of wild popularity when he enrolls in "normal" school.
Again Vrabel presents wonderful characters and weaves her protagonist's blindness into a fabric of life issues. There are bullies, middle-school crushes, and struggles for acceptance. There is learning about the past of an elder who seems eccentric and annoying, but who actually has some merit.
Ryder has had retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer, which affected one eye. We travel with him the road of fear that cancer will come again and rob him of his remaining vision. We learn how he functions with only one eye and see the surprising compassion of other kids who find subtle ways to help him blend in.
While I think kids and parents with a blindness connection will enjoy this book, I didn't find it quite as irresistible as A Blind Guide to Stinkville. Ryder isn't as blind as Alice—no white cane, no special tools or tricks other than swiveling his head a lot to see with that single eye. But his middle-school angst is genuine, and the excessive humor he uses to cover his blindness is a recognizable trait.
Beth Vrabel has written a number of other award-winning books for this age group, some of which feature characters with disabilities and health issues. I hope she'll return to the blindness theme and exercise her talent and insight by writing about a charming kid who has no eyesight and uses Braille.
(Both of these books are available in paperback from Amazon, in audio format from NLS BARD, and in several electronic formats from Bookshare.)