Stories have always been used to share experiences and a variety of experiences. But how often are main characters with autism represented? Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel written by Mary Haddon is a beautiful, heartfelt story of a young boy on the spectrum processing the complicated nature of life, love and human relationships. This book was given to me by a beloved friend who passed away a week after giving me this book. This review is dedicated to Carol Shultz — lover of Curious.
Christopher Boone is our fifteen year old narrator and protagonist. He is an extremely intelligent student but struggles with understanding other people. When he is overwhelmed he curls into a ball and rocks, he cannot connect with other people emotionally in the ways he sees others do. He also only likes prime numbers, so every chapter of the story is marked with sequential prime numbers. Set in England, in the year 1998, our story starts when he discovers his neighbor's dog, a sheer black poodle named Wellington, murdered with a pitch fork. This discovery sends him on an investigation spiral that creates more questions than answers. After a traumatic interaction with a police officer, he is told by his father to not continue his investigation. Christopher ignores this instruction and continues his investigation chronicling it in his journal, the book itself. With the help of his neighborhood he solves the Wellington mystery but discovers bigger secrets along the way. His mother, Judy, whom he believed died of a heart attack years ago is alive and well, living in London. She was overwhelmed by the demands of raising a neurodivergent child and starts an affair with their neighbor Mr. Shears, owner of the dog Wellington and eventually abandons a younger Christopher. His father, Ed, has kept this secret from Christopher for years and has even prevented attempted contact between the two. Ed is struggling with being a single parent and does not handle his own emotions well, at one point reacting physically and violently to Christopher. After the truth of what happened between his parents is revealed, Christopher sets out on a journey to reconnect with his mother and find a safe place in the world for himself.
Haddon’s tale of Christopher's adventures has been challenged and removed from reading lists repeatedly. The most recent challengers have issues with the amount of swear words used throughout the novel and the atheistic point of view shared. The f-word is used 28 times, the s-word 18 times, and the c-word is used once (“Banned Books 2020”). The author's response to the particular challenge was, “Christopher is completely unaware of the offence that swearing is intended to cause and therefore it simply washes over him”, Haddon also felt that it is, “not just a novel that contains swearing but a novel about swearing ”(Flood). The use of swear words is not intended to be vulgar, it is to show how neurodivergent brains process intent and language in their individual ways. The atheistic perspective gleaned by the challengers is built on the fact that Christopher repeatedly uses the lord's name in vain — well at least nine times he does. In Texas, it was also challenged because it was believed that the novel was polluting the minds of the youth. One concerned parent stated, ““I am not interested in having books banned. But to have that language and to take the name of Christ in vain – I don’t go for that. As a Christian, and as a female, I was offended. Kids don’t have to be reading that type of thing and that’s why I was asking for an alternative assignment … I know it’s not realistic to pretend bad words don’t exist, but it is my responsibility as a parent to make sure that my daughter knows what is right or wrong.” (Flood) The content of the story is rarely cited as the reason for banning.
There are many reasons this novel should not be banned or censored. Primarily, it is a novel that represents what it can mean to be autistic. It should be noted that the author himself is not on the autism spectrum or a specialist in this field and wrote this novel primarily based on his own research. Also worth noting is that Christopher is exhibiting what is called ‘Savant Autism’, which is a very rare form of autism where the person exhibits above average intelligence in a particular subject. Regardless, it is so important that autistic people are represented in our reading resources. This leads to more exposure for neurotypicals and ideally fosters a better understanding of our autistic communities. Most importantly, it is a story that people on the spectrum can read and feel seen. Curious is also a story of a teenager processing trauma. Christopher is put through many challenging situations and is able to persevere. It is important for people to read stories that have similar or parallel experiences as Christopher does. Teenagers deal with difficult situations daily and reading about a fellow teen dealing with these experiences can help guide people on their own journeys. The authors response to his book being challenged was, “The assumption is that I should be morally affronted when this happens – and it has happened surprisingly often – but the truth is that it always generates a really interesting debate among school kids and librarians and parents, not just about Curious, but about literature and freedom and language, and this is an undeniably good thing” (Flood). This just solidifies the point that books should not be banned because they offer a resource and a way to facilitate conversations.
Humans will continue to use stories as a way to educate each other and safely experience things outside of their day-to-day lives. Humans will also continue to challenge concepts and experiences, feeling that they are protecting their youth. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a perfect example of why it is important to keep these diverse stories on bookshelves and in students' hands.
“Banned Books 2020 - the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Marshall Libraries, 24 July 2020, https://www.marshall.edu/library/bannedbooks/curious-incident/.
Flood, Alison. “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Pulled from Children’s Reading List.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 12 Aug. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/12/curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time-pulled-from-childrens-reading-list.
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Red Fox, 2014.
Book cover: curious incident of the dog in the night-time" by bookish in north park is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
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This book review is part of a series of Banned Books Week reviews from Dr. Emilee Howland's Fall 2022 ENGL 460: Banned Books class.
For more information about Banned Books Week and how to get involved, please visit BannedBooks.org.