Review: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

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Rose Howard is trying to find her place in the world. She lives alone with her father, who works at the local garage, and is very close with her uncle, who drives her to school and home again every day. Life isn’t always easy; Rose’s father spends most of his time in the pub, she doesn’t have many friends, and her school is poorly equipped to accommodate Rose’s autism:

Most of my classmates are ten years old or about to turn eleven. I’m almost twelve because no one is sure what to do with me in school. (ARC, p. 5)

RAIN REIGN at GoodreadsAs a solution, her school provides her with an aide, who

… rests her hand on my arm when I blurt something out in the middle of math. Or, if I whap myself in the head and start to cry, she’ll say, “Rose, do you need to step into the hall for a moment?” (ARC, p.5-6)

Not surprisingly, her aide does not know how to deal with Rose’s manner of thinking at all. In fact, whenever Rose gets anxious or confused, her aide treats this as a tantrum, to be remedied by either removing her from the situation or by telling Rose to calm down (a narrative unfortunately—and I think unintentionally—supported by a scene further on in the story where Rose manages to swallow a panic attack simply because her father asks her nicely). Explaining situations to her—or even listening to why she’s upset—is not part of the skillset of the aide or even of Rose’s father.

Except when one day, Rose’s father brings home a stray dog for Rose. Rose names the dog Rain (a name with two homonyms—one of her obsessions) and Rain not only becomes a friend to her, but a comrade when trying to suss out Mr. Howard’s moods:

If my father comes home and doesn’t say anything, but walks into his own room, then Rain and I should not go near him at all. And I have to make Rain stay very quiet so she doesn’t annoy him or give him a headache. (ARC, p. 13)

Rose and Rain are inseparable, until Rain disappears in a storm, and Rose has to put all her planning skills to work to find her friend—which she does with strength and determination—only to face the possibility of losing Rain once more.

Rain Reign has many of the ingredients I love in a story: a girl on the spectrum[1], a strong family arc, a distinct lack of sugarcoating, and of course Rose’s fascination with words. I set out to love Rain Reign. Honestly, I wanted to love Rain Reign.

Unfortunately, I didn’t.

Because for all that Rose narrates the events of the book, and for all that there are moments when her voice is nuanced and shines—in the guilt she feels about her mother’s disappearance, in the way she tries to reach out to fellow classmates and both fails and succeeds—this is not the story of an autistic character written for an inclusive audience. This is a story about an autistic character written for a neurotypical audience. Beyond those first chapters, the nuanced scenes are few and far between. Instead, the story is written in a quintessential “Autism Voice” and, more and more, reading it felt like an exercise in being othered.

Autism Voice, noun

  1. The autistic character narrates everything in minute detail.
  2. The autistic character narrates emotional experiences and/or their emotions in a dispassionate, disconnected way.
  3. Moments of high emotion can also be recognized by an abundance of verbal tics.

In Rain Reign, all three of those aspects are present. The story is narrated by Rose, who does so very carefully, with regular signpost-y comments such as “The next part of my introduction is the setting of my story.” To a degree, this is fitting. The story shows Rose to be a very careful girl, both in the way she deals with her father’s drinking—knowing well when to disturb him and when to leave him be—and in the way she deals with the care of Rain. But many more characters across children’s literature are portrayed as careful and determined, yet their stories are told without that added narrative distance. It’s a quirk that seems to be reserved primarily for autistic characters.

At other points, too, it’s glaring that the nuances are continuously pushed aside for a far more stereotypical narrative. While I found Rose to be a strong and interesting character, she has to be explicitly framed as other. From the constant focus on her obsession with homonyms, numbers, prime numbers, weather patterns, and rules, to commonly understood examples of autism, like being overly literal in her reactions:

This might (mite) be (bee) sarcasm, which is like mockery. (p75)

While her behavior hints at emotional responses, it has to be made clear, again and again, that she could not actually have her own feelings, beyond that which she was taught:

I have thought of that triple homonym before, but I know this is not the time to mention it. This is the time for the feeling of friendliness. (p185)

It is rational. It is quirky. It is different. It is Other:

I begin to breathe very fast.
I think this is a sign of panic.
“Two, three, five, seven, eleven,” I say. “Two, three, five, seven, eleven.” (p90)

Because above all, “Autism Voice” seems to be based on one particularly pervasive stereotype: autistics do not experience emotions. We do not feel. (Therefore) We cannot be hurt. Our only understanding of emotions is one of rational definitions only.

It’s often repeated, widely accepted, and as such, a particularly harmful stereotype. After all, what stops us from mistreating our fellow humans if we claim to know they won’t be hurt anyway? Why should you believe us when we tell you we do hurt, when every stereotype claims autistics cannot be trusted with their own experiences?

Right.

While Rain Reign pleasantly surprised me by showing Rose’s empathy not only toward Rain, but also toward her father and uncle (both in very different ways), it continues to follow that tradition of denying autistic characters emotional agency.

And perhaps that is what made loving the book impossible for me. Because as an autistic person, it hurts that people still tell me to my face that I cannot feel, that I do not experience emotions the way “normal” people do. And this pervasive stereotype of the overly rational, uncaring autistic actively harms me and will continue to do so as long as it continues to be the main representation of autism.

For Rain Reign it is, at best, a missed opportunity. It is, at worst, another confirmation of a harmful and problematic misunderstanding of autism. Especially in a book whose underlying moral is one of challenging ourselves to step outside of our own perception, as is explicitly stated in the last chapter:

A few [homonyms]make lovely connections if you’re open to changing your perspective when you think about them.

Rain Reign is one of those books that, as a writer, makes me wonder about how we write diverse characters, but often, especially, disabled characters. Too often, stories about disability and disabled characters are written for a non-disabled audience. So too with Rain Reign.

And perhaps this is best exemplified, not by the story, but by the Author’s Note in the ARC, where the author states that she spent only a single morning talking with and observing students on the spectrum. That is not inclusion.

Reading this story feels like being observed, through a very biased lens. That is not inclusion.

A story about us, without us, is not inclusion. And it’s exactly children like Rose who crave that inclusion, recognition, acceptance, especially when they can’t find it at home or at school. We owe more to them. We owe more to ourselves.

[1] While some descriptions identify Rose as having both Asperger’s and OCD, the cover copy of the ARC does not do so. The book itself only mentions her “diagnosis of high-functioning autism” which, according to Rose, some people call Asperger’s Syndrome. This review will only focus on the representation of autism, but does so in the understanding that “high-functioning” is an inherently ableist description and that, while the DSM-V does denote severity levels, the term high-functioning itself has never been an official diagnosis.



About Author

Marieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. This is Where it Ends, her debut YA, will be released by Sourcebooks Fire. She wants to grow up to be a time traveler.

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10 Comments

  1. I haven’t read Rain Reign (love the title, though), and I’m really sorry that it’s so hurtful because it was chosen for the Schneider Family Book Award in the middle grade category last year. Unfortunately, those awards establish the canon, and when the winners perpetuate harmful stereotypes, those stereotypes become part of the canon. Then, when an insider brings forward a more authentic portrayal, his or her work is seen as not valid because the portrayal of that disability has already been defined by outsiders.

    And when the portrayal involves a child who is a brilliant wordsmith but lacks emotional perceptiveness and depth (and whose language is loaded with verbal tics), I worry that this will define those of us on the spectrum who are trying to build careers as writers. While I haven’t encountered this characterization of my own writing (for instance, my wonderful editor says most writers have tics of one sort or another, and that’s what she’s there for), I could see it becoming a problem for those of us who are open about being on the autism spectrum, if outsiders continue to perpetuate the stereotype of the Autistic Voice and it goes unchallenged.

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  3. Pingback: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin (Review by Marieke Nijkamp) | Kate Escape Reviews

  4. I have a somewhat different take on Rose’s “voice” in Rain Reign. I am currently reading it with my son, who is on the spectrum. Where he “falls”, we don’t know and are pursuing education and resources for him. He differs from Rose in that he does not find comfort in strictly observing rules and routines, nor does he have well defined interests, as Rose does with her prime numbers and homonyms. He does however, struggle to communicate his emotions and feelings. Finding the words to describe how he is feeling, particularly when sad or angry, is a very real issue. He falls back on phrases like, “…that’s private”, “I don’t want to talk about that”, or “Never mind”. He feels deeply. I know his emotions are as complex and developed as any other persons, neurotypical or not. However, if you ask him to write down what he is feeling, he would not/could not. So, when I read Rain Reign, I am reminded of how this world demands us to be fluent in the language of “feelings” and how difficult it can be when someone does not communicate fluently in that language of emotions. That part of the book rings true for me and I find myself listening to the words of the book for clues on what Rose’s emotions are. My experiences with my son force me to look deeper and not to rely on “words” to show me how he is feeling. I do agree with you that Rose is written as the “Other”. It is hard to connect with her on many levels. The father character as well. He is the lurking menace of the piece. I am conflicted about the book because it has been chosen for my son’s book club. It is definitely not as nuanced or thought provoking as I had hoped it would be. That bother’s me because it’s common or “typical” for people to read a book and then think everyone with autism must be like this character. They think, “…Now I know what it’s like.” But they don’t and couldn’t possibly from one book.

  5. After A Corner of the Universe, I wouldn’t touch an autism-related book by Ann M. Martin with a ten foot pole. She keeps trying to write about autism, I can think of four books of hers that touch on the subject (counting this one), and she just can’t get it right.

    I can forgive her the BSC book and that other one from that time period being stuck in the late 80s and early 90s, but there’s no excuse for the later two books being no better than the first two.

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  7. ActuallyAutisticReader on

    As a person who was diagnosed with the same things as Rose (Aspergers, OCD) according to later descriptions not on the ARC, I disagree with much of this review. The main character and her voice felt so real to me, at time I felt like Young Me could have written it, especially the bit about “narrating everything in minute detail,” which some of my early English teachers had to get me to stop doing.

    I don’t agree that Rose reads as though she doesn’t have or feel emotions. To me, it reads that she has difficulty putting her emotions into words, and often has to rely on the words and phrases she was explicitly taught in order to explain herself. This is not uncommon with Autistic people. Many of us need help with expressive language, which is one of the ways in which speech therapists can be very helpful even for those who are verbal. The example given here about breathing heavily and believing this is a sign of panic does not read to me like the words of someone unable to feel, but like the words of someone who needed help to put a label on that feeling – and haven’t most children felt like that sometimes? It’s not always easy to put feelings into words, especially when one is Autistic which can pose an additional challenge when it comes to communication. I used to say I felt “bouncy” when I was highly agitated or overwhelmed because I didn’t have the right word yet. Same goes for the verbal tics Rose experiences when she gets upset. My tics become more obvious and are harder to control when I’m upset, so that didn’t read negatively to me.

    Rain Reign is one of my favorite books. Rose felt real and relatable to me, much more so than other Autistic characters I’ve read, and while it’s perfectly okay for this reviewer to feel completely differently it hurts when I find a character I can strongly identify with and then see her described as a harmful stereotype – does that mean *I* am a harmful stereotype? A walking harmful stereotype? Ouch.

    It is therefore important for those who read this review to remember that Autistic people are not a monolith, especially as I personally found this review kind of hurtful to read. To see that the way I express myself is described as unrealistic, that the way I might remind myself that it’s time to feel and act a certain way is “Othering,” and that her many obsessions (which could be part of her OCD) are indicative of Autism “stereotyping” hurts. Please, anyone reading this review, remember that it is the position of one Autistic person who does not speak for all. (Not saying the reviewer claims to speak for all, just a reminder to those reading the review.)

  8. Victoria Laing on

    I like the character Rose. She is autistic like me and we both share some traits. We both have a hard time making friends. I strongly dislike the way Rose is treated by her father who is very critical and harsh towards her, but I really like her kind and loving Uncle Weldon and her loyal nod sweet dog Rain. It must have been very hard for her to lose Rain

  9. I have a very different take on Rain Reign. It’s one of my favorite books with an autistic protagonist for this age range. It has problems, yes. But I think the positive far outweighs the problematic.

    The big picture: Rose’s arc does not focus on her being “less autistic.” In fact, in a manner better than any other book I’ve seen yet, Rose manages to change the opinions of those around her to respect and appreciate her autistic self. Her aide, her teacher, her father, kids at school – are presented as misunderstanding her, gaslighting her, dismissing her, trying to repress her, and she copes, advocates for herself, and ultimately wins them over. The very things they try to squash in her are the things that ultimately demonstrate her to be the strongest, most empathetic, and most, er, moral?, character in the book. That to me is pretty outstanding and nice to see.

    The details: I actually feel the book does a good job of demonstrating some autistic emotional expression. It’s a YA book, so it’s not as nuanced as can be. But the way echolalia and focused interests are used to demonstrate emotional self-regulation works pretty well for me. More importantly, the reactions of OTHER people to her self-regulation is spot-on. And then she kind of teaches other kids to use her self-regulation techniques, which is awesome. I mean, she wins kids over not by suppressing these things, not by making some unrelated leap into NT behavior, but by showing them the benefits of autistic ways of being. Her distress over others’ behavior (yes, somewhat repetitively over rule-breaking) while maybe a bit hamfisted at times, is not unfamiliar, and more importantly, is well-motivated – she is generally distressed at unfair treatment, and the book makes it clear that she is right in this. And she does not give in to it. The simplified and “stereotypical” focus on homonyms and numbers – didn’t bother me too much. It’s YA. It’s not too far off from my reality. It is important to the story, and essential in differentiating how other characters deal with her, and demonstrating the power of acceptance over squashing. Contrasting the folks that are willing to engage her on her terms vs. the folks that dismiss her and insist she conform to NT standards.

    The story, and especially the ending, are not saccharine or simplistic. The ending is very complex and nuanced. The book deals well with abusive situations, especially the complex father, who I think serves as a very effective tool for discussing some causes and roots of abusive behavior with young autistic readers. He retains humanity, he wants and fails to be better, the causes of his abusive behavior are NOT rooted in Rose. While this comes through, he is not forgiven by the book, he does not transform; he ultimately does the best thing for Rose that he can, though it’s a pretty sad and damning thing.

    I dunno. Eager to hear how other autistic folks react to this. I try to read everything I can both for myself and to find things for my son to read (or for us to read together), and after lots, I feel this is the best one so far, for the reasons above. The conversations, reading this together, have been great. About how she didn’t bend or compromise on the things that were important to her, and how by being true to herself she gained the respect of everyone around her. I’d love to hear about other books that do this!

    • An interesting discussion would have to do with NT authors writing autistic characters in the first person, as so commonly seems to be the case. I think it’s a powerful way to write these things, especially when trying to help an NT audience to empathize… but I think it’s also at the root of what often seems wrong about such books. And yet, setting up a third-person enigma seems othering. Can anyone think of any good examples of third-person writing of a novel like this, that has a good representation of an autistic main character without seeming too… ‘splainy?

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