(CONTINUED FROM PART ONE)
But enough about format. It’s the content that really matters in these cases anyway, and certainly it was the content that drew me in in the first place. Manga that deals with serious issues is rare enough, but this book certainly goes above and beyond the call of duty. As the story brings up different challenges in the life of the parent of an autistic child, the author offers helpful tips and website addresses to aid others in similar positions. For example, when Hikaru is slated to visit the dentist there are steps mentioned on how to get the child to understand what’s going to happen beforehand so that they don’t freak out. There are even diagrams of homemade protective devices, like a cover for light switches, that can help parents reading this book as well.
There are deeper issues addressed too. At one point Sachiko takes Hikaru to a welcoming ceremony at his new school. He freaks out predictably enough, and she begins to ponder what is truly in the best interests of a person with autism. “I want Hikaru to live in this city and interact with those who aren’t disabled. But is my wish just hurting Hikaru more?” Another time a teacher tries to suggest handicapping the school’s track race so that Hikaru can finish with everyone else, but his parents point out that they don’t want to hold other children back. As long as Hikaru finishes they’ll be happy, and that’s a distinction that deserves a little credit, I think. Of course, a lot of this book concentrates on showing readers how differently a boy like Hikaru reacts to the world around him. At the same time, the author cleverly shows other children and makes it clear that autism varies from person to person. Hikaru doesn’t like to have his ears touched, but that doesn’t mean that this would be the case for another child.
I was also surprised to see the parents of Hikaru portrayed as anything but long-suffering saints. The fact that they really do start out as pretty terrible parents is not only significant but also noteworthy. Sachiko may play the victim at times, and indeed her relatives give her full reason to feel bad about her lot, but at the same time you have to realize that this is a mom that slaps her child and falls asleep with him watching television. Even when she has a second baby she takes a trip to the local school while the little one is sleeping. The teacher she tells this to is appropriately horrified and tells her to go back, but she seems bewildered by this response. It seems to me that Keiko Tobe has more than enough meat with which to build the sequels to Hikaru’s story. These characters have gone far, but they’ve still got a bit of a trek ahead of them, that’s for sure.
The story contained more depth than I had anticipated, but there were still moments that gave me pause. Though it is shown fairly clearly that women subservient to men have a miserable lot in life, that doesn’t mean that Sachiko won’t still ask her husband for permission before going out and getting a job. The role of women in this book is as caregivers primarily. This may be an unfair conclusion to draw, however, since we’re dealing with a young mother interacting with other young mothers. For the most part, however, working moms either do it part time with their husbands’ permission, or they are separated by their children by hundreds of miles, making money while missing their kids.
Though it might seem an odd pairing, I would definitely suggest handing this book out alongside Cynthia Lord’s remarkable Newbery Honor winning middle grade novel, “Rules”. In the Translation Note portion of the book it is explained that in Japanese the term for autism is “self-closing syndrome” or “cloistered syndrome”. Seeing something like autism explained not only through the eyes of someone from a foreign country, but via a foreign format as well, is striking. It will certainly open a lot of children’s and teen’s eyes to autism itself, while at the same time offering a glimpse into another culture that is different and not different from our own. I can say with certainty that you have almost undoubtedly never seen a book like “With the Light” before. Depending on its success here in the American marketplace it remains to be seen if you’ll ever find the like of it again. Original and gripping.