There Are No Words
By: Mary Calhoun Brown
Publisher: Lucky Press
Publication Date: September 2009
Reviewed by: Eloise Michael
Review Date: January 2010
There Are No Words is narrated by Jaxon, a 12-year-old girl with autism who lives with her grandparents. Though she shares with the reader that she cannot speak and describes her intense reactions to sound and touch, this is not really a book about autism. It is an adventure whose protagonist happens to be autistic.
Jaxon also proves to be a strong, quick-thinking girl with a crush on a black boy and a friend who, in 1918, likes to wear boys' pants and shoes under her dresses. Author Mary Calhoun Brown defies many stereotypes. Teachers and parents looking for a book with strong female characters or gentle, nurturing men will find them here. The book also promotes awareness of autism without presenting it as a problem to be overcome. In fact the main problem from Jaxon's point of view is that other people do not understand autism and treat her as though she is stupid or, to use her word, unworthy.
We see the world through the eyes of someone who is extremely sensitive to touch and to sounds. Jaxon also pays close attention to details and colors. The descriptions of the world around her-- the feel of the carpet, the sounds of the rain-- are peaceful and poetic. Jaxon, who has much difficulty communicating with others, including her own mother, is still able to paint for us beautiful images of the world as she sees it.
When Jaxon is magically transported through a painting and back in time, she finds that she is able to speak. In fact she seems to have no trouble communicating whatsoever and to be unusually good at intuiting the feelings of others. In Tennessee in 1918 Jaxon's autism is not a problem, but she soon discovers that racism, an issue that she had been unaware of before her time-travel adventure, is a huge one.
Ms. Brown more than once compares racism to the discrimination that Jaxon faces as a person with autism. Brown's presentation of race issues in the United States does not go very deep. Happily the black character, Oliver, has three wonderful white friends who are willing to risk their lives for him. Also, Jaxon seems to believe that racism is all but gone in her modern world. We can forgive, perhaps, her surface-level observations on race, knowing that Jaxon almost never leaves her grandparents' house and interacts with few people outside of her family. Though readers may not feel convinced that the experience of a black person in the south parallels that of an autistic child so neatly, teachers and students will appreciate Brown's message of tolerance toward all others.
The strongest aspect of the story is the unfolding mystery and adventure as Jaxon and her friends race against time, hoping to stop a train wreck and to rescue Oliver. There is real suspense, and Brown describes the action with vivid images, employing the same poetic language that she uses for the pastoral scenes in the beginning of the book. Despite the excitement of a train hurtling toward tragedy in the hours before dawn, the book maintains its peaceful, dreamlike feel throughout.
There Are No Words is a quick read with thoroughly likable characters. The relationships between the characters are sweet while still being very real. Readers will be inspired by the patience of Jaxon's grandparents and the kindness of her friends.
Quill says: A dream-like adventure that reads like poetry while challenging stereotypes.
For more information on There Are No Words, please visit the author's website at: MaryCalhounBrown.com