Review: A Blind Guide to Normal by Beth Vrabel
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Sky Pony Press. Thank you!
Publication: October 11, 2016 by Sky Pony Press, imprint of Skyhorse Publishing
Richie “Ryder” Raymond has a gift. He can find the punchline in any situation, even in his limited vision and prosthetic eye. During the past year at Addison School for the Blind, Ryder’s quick wit earned the respect and friendship of his classmates. Heading to mainstream, or “normal,” school for eighth grade is going to be awesome.
After all, what’s not to like? At Addison, Ryder was everyone’s favorite person. He could make anyone laugh, especially his best friend Alice. So long as he can be first to make all of the one-eyed jokes, Ryder is sure he’ll fit in just as quick at Papuaville Middle School, home of the Fighting Guinea Pigs. But Alice warns him fitting in might not be as easy as he thinks.
Turns out, Alice was right. In just the first hour of “normal” school, Ryder is attacked by General MacCathur II (aka, Gramps’s cat), causes his bio teacher to pass out cold, makes an enemy out town hero Max, and falls for Jocelyn, the fierce girl next door who happens to be Max’s girlfriend. On top of that, Ryder struggles to hold onto his dignity in the face of students’ pity and Gramps’s non-stop practical jokes. Ryder quickly sees the only thing worse than explaining a joke is being the punchline. But with help from his stuck-in-the-70s Gramps and encouragement from Alice, Ryder finds the strength to not only fight back, but to make peace.
This exciting sequel to A Blind Guide to Stinkville weaves humor, recovery and second chances into an unforgettable story, with characters who will hook you from page one.
In my review of Beth Vrabel’s previously published middle grade novel A Blind Guide to Stinkville, I mentioned that the author’s work is one part of why children’s lit has been soaring this year. Now, with A Blind Guide Normal, my total of Vrabel titles read in 2016 comes to four (!), each one going from strength to strength, tackling different, challenging questions and topics, with this particular title a seriously poignant and surprising read.
At the heart of the story we have our narrator and protagonist Richie Ryder Raymond. Ryder is a character who is first introduced in A Blind Guide to Stinkville; we meet him there briefly as a new friend of that story’s main character, Alice Confrey. In A Blind Guide to Normal, we meet again with Ryder as he is starting out on a mammoth-sized change in his life: not only moving to a new state and staying with his slightly estranged Gramps, but also trying out ‘normal’ public school (i.e. being out of a specialized school for the blind). It is during the early stages of this big upheaval that Ryder discovers just how hard, cringe-inducingly awkward, strange (…and maybe, possibly wonderful?) these changes are going to be…
One major component of the story is Ryder’s navigation through the complicated and terrifying maze of school machinations, friends and foes, and falling a little bit in love with a neighbor. The other major component of the story- and so wonderfully drawn-out- involves Ryder’s relationship with his oft-absent parents, his unfamiliar-to-him grandfather, as well as Ryder’s own personal memories of battling cancer, being in hospital, and his recovery. Vrabel, as she did with Alice’s character in A Blind Guide to Stinkville, just gets- breathes- and inhabits young narrative voice. Ryder is yet another terrific character: self-deprecating, sarcastic; full of aches and knots he wants to but can’t quite untie; full of complicated emotions and feelings about his family and those around him, and capable of making major mistakes. I especially loved how Vrabel portrays and develops Ryder’s up-and-down relationship with his grandpa- there are some big, fun, laugh-out-loud and heartache-inducing revelations there.
Overall, A Blind Guide to Normal is yet another meaningful, heartfelt and strongly written children’s fiction title from Beth Vrabel. While you do not necessarily have to have read A Blind Guide to Stinkville to understand or appreciate this sequel, I would still recommend as the book and characters (you get to meet Alice and her family!) are simply wonderful. Any readers who have already read and liked Beth Vrabel’s previous titles, or those who enjoy the work of authors such as Lisa Graff, Leslie Connor, Kat Yeh or Donna Gephart might especially love A Blind Guide to Normal.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Sky Pony Press/Skyhorse Publishing in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.