August 2005


This book is a perfect read for mothers and daughters Perfect, by Natasha Friend, Milkweed Editions, 2004, $6.95.

This is not the type of book we usually write about on this page. In fact, it could easily fit in Sandi Pedersen’s tween book column (which appears every other month in the Kid Culture section). But I think Perfect is a good book for parents to read and share with daughters.

This is the story of a teenage girl with bulimia. Told in the smart, wise-cracking voice of 13-year-old Isabelle, the story begins when her younger sister April discovers her making herself throw up in the bathroom. April tells Mom, and Isabelle lands in group therapy.

Isabelle’s father died suddenly two years ago, and Isabelle isn’t the only one in her family still suffering. Although her mother cries herself to sleep every night, she steadfastly maintains that everything is “fine.” Isabelle is sick of “fine.”

The first thing Isabelle discovers in group therapy is that even “perfect” girls aren’t exempt from eating disorders. Take Ashley Barnum, for instance. Ashley is blonde, gorgeous, smart, rich— “perfect.” Ashley has never spoken to Isabelle before they meet in group therapy. Before long, they’re binging and purging together.

Sound disgusting? Not really—just sad. A straightforward narrator, Isabelle includes only enough detail so we understand the reality of her misery.

As Isabelle learns from her therapist to express her feelings in a journal, her emotional distress begins to loosen its grip on her self-esteem. But don’t get the impression that everything turns out perfectly in the end. As the book draws to a close, Isabelle’s family has started to heal from the grief of losing her father. But we don’t know whether perfect, popular Ashley will ever find her way out of her cycle of self-inflicted pain.

Anyone who has seen the movie “Mean Girls”—or who experienced the tyranny of back-stabbing and social-climbing in school—can attest to the havoc wrought by kowtowing to a standard of exterior perfection. In Perfect, Natasha Friend suggests that speaking honestly to authentic friends is the opposite of trying to be perfect, whether you’re a teenager or her mother.

I asked my 13-year-old daughter to read this book and tell me what she thought. We had the best conversation I can remember having together as a result. Whether you’re a mother or a daughter yourself, you’ll find this book provocative and moving. Kristin Gehring

Mom poet inspires others living with autistic children Hurricane Dancing: Glimpses of Life With an Autistic Child, by D. Alison Watt, photographs by Carole Ruth Fields, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004, $13.95.

An inspirational voice has emerged through the abundance of clinical literature on autism. Alison Watt, poet and mother of an autistic child, has published a collection of poetry “born from intense and sometimes traumatic incidents” experienced while raising her daughter, Alexa. Hurricane Dancing not only conveys the joys and challenges of parenting an exceptional child, it is a deeply moving portrayal of Watt’s determination and commitment to her daughter.

In a poem titled “Playground Prayer,” Watt  observes her daughter as she tries to find a playmate: “Playgrounds are a stage of isolation. I stand alone, set apart, different, because my daughter is.” But Watt does not lapse into despair and hopelessness. Rather, these isolating experiences have fine-tuned her appreciation of simple acts of kindness and friendship. In “The Work of Angels,” Watt insists she will never relinquish the “power of believing.” Nor will she ever take for granted those playmates who, “taking up the work of angels, without wings,” help Alexa to “fly.”

Alexa’s extreme sensitivities cause her to erupt frequently in tantrums. Her lapses of judgment often result in awkward social situations. In a poem called “This Is Pain,” Watt describes a scene where her daughter has pulled another girl’s hair and the parent refuses to accept an explanation and apology. As Watt tearfully escorts her daughter from the scene, she “bites back defenses, of my wonderful, precious, already-on-five-medications doesn’t-know-what-she’s-doing daughter.” Yet she is able to endure these difficult tantrums and situations because her daughter’s “crazed frightened eyes will soften again” and “the rocky path will eventually lead to sturdier ground.”

Portraits of Alexa by Carole Ruth Fields accompany the poems. We see a beautiful, curly-haired Alexa grow from a toddler to late childhood. We see what her mother describes in “Joy of Life” as “brilliance in her eyes, music in her voice, exuberance in her step.” Watt tells us not to tell her that we are sorry that she has an autistic child. Rather we should tell her: “You go girl, loving and raising that child.” I would like to tell her that I admire her courage, talent and honesty. Hurricane Dancing is poetry and humanity at its finest. Emilija Novitovic, M.Ed.


Reporter investigates mercury in kids’ vaccines Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, by David Kirby, St. Martin’s Press, 2005, $26.95.

The New York Times’ David Kirby smelled something fishy in November 2002 when a clause was inserted into the Homeland Security Act to protect the makers of a vaccine preservative called thimerosal from lawsuits by parents who believed it had injured their children.

Kirby began investigating why, if thimerosal was harmless, its makers needed to be shielded from lawsuits. His research resulted in Evidence of Harm, which tells a depressing story about damaged children and their desperate, angry parents battling government officials, doctors and corporations eager to escape blame for the surge in autism.

Kirby argues that a growing body of evidence clearly suggests thimerosal is harmful to children. Kirby points to published articles as far back as 1986 showing the danger of thimerosal in multiple vaccines. His research shows that health officials may have distorted data to lessen the connection between thimerosal and autism, ignored research showing thimerosal causes autism-like effects in rats and relied on flawed clinical data supplied by the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, to maintain approval of the preservative.

Thimerosal, used as a preservative in vaccines, contains nearly 50 percent mercury. Kirby writes that the additive has never been subjected to Food and Drug Administration testing because its approval was “grandfathered” before the agency’s regulations went into effect.

In 1999, the government asked pharmaceutical companies to remove thimerosal from vaccines. Thimerosal is still found in flu shots given to children.

Kirby’s painstakingly researched, densely packed book should be required reading for parents and  pediatricians. It paints a damning portrait of the very officials we expect to protect our children’s health. Jane Huth


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