Author Cynthia Lord's first novel is an intense account of twelve-year old Catherine and her relationship with her younger brother, David, who is autistic. The title, Rules, comes from the many things Catherine has to teach her brother, things that other children just pick up. Some of Catherine's rules for David are "It's fine to hug Mom, but not the clerk at the video store." or "Late doesn't mean not coming." or "Take your shoes off at the doctor, but at the dentist leave them on." Catherine has a lot of responsibilities as David's older and only sibling, and sometimes this is a source of regret or embarrassment for her.
When a new neighbor, Kristi, moves in next door, Catherine dreams of a picture perfect friendship, and carefully plans their first meeting. Things backfire, of course, and Catherine worries about David's effect on her first impression. But Catherine discovers another friend in Jason, the wheelchair bound teen who cannot speak. Catherine knows Jason from accompanying David and her mother to Occupational Therapy. Jason is there for Speech Therapy. He uses a communication board of cards with words and pictures on them to talk. Catherine begins to expand his vocabulary by making more word cards for him. She begins to see him as whole and wonderful person, instead of pitying him. She does not reveal his disabilities to Kristi though, and lets Kristi assume that Jason is her boyfriend. In the end, Catherine accepts Jason, her brother, and their disabilities, and learns that though Kristi may be perfect, she may not be the perfect friend.
Aside from some brief and harmless boyfriend talk (Kristi mentions that she had a boyfriend before she moved, and she plans to go to a youth dance with the boy across the street.), this novel is an exceptional example of developing virtue and discovering sacrifice as a path to happiness. Few books written about and for girls are as sincere and non-trivial as this one. Cynthia Lord has written an amazingly vivid account of life with an autistic child. On the jacket, she is quoted as saying, "I wrote Rules to explore some of my own questions about living with someone who sees the world so differently than I do, but also to show a full experience of family life with a child with autism: the happy moments, the heartbreaking one, the ones that make me laugh."
I found this book to be emotionally intense, and as a result I recommend this book for ages thirteen and up.