Title: Wild Orchid
Author: Beverley Brenna
Publisher: Red Deer Press
Genre: YA fiction, realistic fiction, disabilities, fiction about Asperger’s Syndrome
Recommended Age: Young Adult
Summary: Taylor just graduated from high school and feels the threat of The Future looming before her, and it certainly doesn’t help that her mom is forcing her to go on a visit to Waskesiu for the summer. Taylor is worried that things will be too unfamiliar if she leaves her home; how will she know what to expect? For Taylor, uncertainty is a real threat; she has a form of Autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome and has difficulty dealing with change and social situations that would seem inconsequential to others. However, Taylor manages to surprise herself when she finds herself enjoying the predictable pattern that she manages to establish in Waskesiu. She walks the beach seven times in the morning, goes to the nature center, looks for plants, talks to Paul and the others who work at the center, and returns home for pancakes, fries, or pizza before going to bed with her wind-up clock set. Soon enough, things start to change for Taylor, but she finds that she is stronger than she imagined when she takes on a job at the nature center and makes three friends in the process.
Evaluation: Brenna takes the reader into the mind of a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, allowing the reader to imagine the anxiety, worry, and confusion that Taylor experiences when she encounters unknown situations and finds herself in social situations that she does not know how to navigate. Taylor’s coping mechanisms are portrayed in detail as she tries to reassure herself by counting to the number seven, sharing information about gerbils, and looking for wild orchids on Waskesiu’s nature trail. Brenna provides an excellent depiction of the repetitive tasks that individuals with Autism often demonstrate, while the diary format of the novel provides a first-hand account of Taylor’s experience rather than rely on an omniscient narrator. This is a hard to find book (it is a Canadian publication), but its honest portrayal of Autism makes it a worthy addition to a YA library collection.
Personal Response: At times, this is a difficult book to read. Taylor’s condition makes her dwell on small things, like the number of words that a person uses to construct a sentence, her nervous tics and worries are numerous often making it a challenge for the reader to understand her actions. I felt as if I was experiencing the events from Taylor’s perspective, but found myself feeling sympathetic towards her mother. Taylor’s mother often appears selfish to Taylor, who cannot understand why her mother would want to change any aspect of their lives. The reader is able to understand the challenges faced by a parent who wants the best for their autistic child but also wants their child to understand that sometimes change is inevitable. I felt frustrated by Taylor, but I also felt frustrated for her; I imagine this is what her mother must feel.
Suggested Extension Activities: This novel can be used as part of a special school media program to promote awareness of emotional and psychological disabilities among teens. The program can present information on disabilities such as Asperger’s, autism, depression, eating disorders, etc. to encourage understanding and awareness of the effect of these “silent” disabilities on teens. Students who have experience with these disabilities (whether first-hand, or through a friend or relative) can be encouraged to share their thoughts in writing. Poems, essays, and short stories on living with disabilities can be printed in the school newspaper or on a library blog. Students can choose to remain anonymous.
Posters and bulletins can be created and posted around the media center and around school common areas to help students learn more about these conditions.
A display of relevant materials can be set up in the library in a prominent area and teachers can be encouraged to incorporate information about disabilities into the class curriculum.