I've been hearing wonderful things about Marcelo in the Real World for months. Everyone seems to love it. Lots of people were saying it was going to win the Printz (and then were stunned when it didn't even get an honor). But I held back. Because everyone was describing this as a book about an autistic kid, and that's a touchy subject for me; if you don't get the description of autism right I'll immediately shut the book and walk away. It's a subject that hits too close to home for me so I'm wary about what I'll pick up just to save myself the stress.
It turns out people just need to be a lot more accurate in their descriptions of Marcelo. He is not autistic; he hasn't even been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Instead he's on the autism spectrum in an unidentifiable way. This seemed to me an excellent way to present Marcelo: not only does it highlight the wide variety of ways that autism can present itself, but Stork could describe Marcelo and his disabilities however he wanted, and since Marcelo didn't have a medical label attached to him, there was really no wrong way to go.
In case you've been living under a rock, here's the quick story: it's the summer before Marcelo's last year of high school and he's extremely excited to pick up his summer job working with the ponies at Paterson, his private school for children with disabilities. His father, a powerful lawyer, however, has other plans: Marcelo needs to get out into the real world and interact with other people, because he wants to send Marcelo to the public high school for his senior year. The two make a deal: Marcelo will work in the mail room at the law firm for the summer and if he's successful he will get to go back to Paterson for his senior year. If he fails, then it's off to public school. While going through some routine files, Marcelo uncovers a mysterious photograph: a girl with a horribly scarred face. The picture obviously relates to the case his father is currently defending, but is filed to be thrown out rather than be kept with the rest of the evidence. Marcelo and Jasmine, his boss in the mail room, begin an investigation of their own, giving Marcelo some of his greatest real world lessons in friendship, work and doing the right thing.
The law firm setting is absolutely perfect for exploring ideas of right and wrong and the rules of social interaction that Marcelo is supposed to absorb over his summer. The legal system is murky, and in this case Marcelo's father is defending a company that is accused of making dangerous windshields that crack into dangerous shards rather than tiny little pieces in an accident. The company doesn't want to settle any of its lawsuits out of court, but then Marcelo overhears his father discussing a possible settlement with a high-powered lawyer while absolutely refusing a settlement with another lawyer representing a poor client. It's a confusing set of social mores for the best of us, and especially confusing for someone like Marcelo who is used to seeing the world in relatively black and white terms.
Another great/terrible addition is Wendell, the son of the other major partner in the law firm. Wendell is a slimeball. I felt creepy just reading about him. He is the exact opposite of the kind and open Marcelo and I wanted to punch him in the face several times, an excellent quality in the "villain" of the story. So he's great because he functions exactly how the bad guy should, but terrible because he's so creepy and manipulative.
There's a great bit of narration in the novel that describes Marcelo perfectly, after hearing from Jasmine that his father described him as having a cognitive disorder:
He has always insisted that there's nothing wrong with me. The term "cognitive disorder" implies that there is something wrong with the way I think or with the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others
It's constantly apparent that there is something different about Marcelo. He'll slip into speaking in the third person. He hears what he calls internal music that no one else can sense. He is almost obsessive over studying religion and has to be reminded not to quote scripture or correct or cite quotations that have slipped into idiomatic usage. But this difference is impossible to define. I can see why people have used autistic or Asperger to describe Marcelo, but neither is quite right. I'm very glad I got over my own hesitations and picked this one up. I'm a terrible judge at what should win the major prizes, but I can definitely see why people would be surprised this one didn't get any major recognitions.