By Janice Llanes Fabry
Rye Neck Middle School gave author Nora Raleigh Baskin a warm welcome on September 26. Having read her novel, “Anything But Typical,” in a schoolwide assignment over the summer, Principal Eric Lutinski, teachers, and students alike became well acquainted with its protagonist, an autistic 12-year-old boy, as well as with its overriding themes of empathy and acceptance.
During three PTSA sponsored assemblies in the Performing Arts Center, Baskin revealed much of her personal background to demonstrate the profound resemblance between author and main character.
As Library Media Specialist Linda Costelloe put it, “Nora Raleigh Baskin’s ability to articulate the incredible obstacles she had to overcome on her journey to becoming an author, plus her brutal honesty, were so moving.”
Baskin’s mother committed suicide when she was 3. Later, she was abandoned by her father, then her stepmother, and exposed to domestic abuse. “I was a really angry, confused sixth grader,” admitted Baskin, who bounced from school to school.
Upon landing in New Paltz Middle School, she found her niche. A sixth grade Language Arts teacher made an impact by reading aloud a story she had written for the class.
“In that moment, my life changed. I decided I wanted to be a writer,” Baskin recalled. “John Thomsen made a real difference in my life.”
Baskin started out with autobiographical novels before turning to different subjects. When embarking on “Anything But Typical,” she learned all there is to know about autism through extensive research and personal accounts. She also did a lot of soul searching.
“I decided the book had to be about empathy, not sympathy, and about acceptance, not tolerance,” Baskin remarked. “I didn’t want to be tolerated as a kid, but I wanted to be accepted.”
For the schoolwide read, guidance counselors Meegan Lawlor and Christopher Spillane tied the visit to the district’s Anti-Defamation League No Place for Hate program. “Projects like this help to highlight empathy and acceptance which help to create a positive school climate for all,” noted Lawlor. (RNMS is a gold star No Place for Hate school.)
She and eighth grade English teacher Cathy Toolan put together lessons that culminated in the students creating posters with “Anything But Typical” themes that hang in the Community Room. The students were also invited to write an essay entitled, “Why I want to have lunch with Nora Raleigh Baskin.” After the assemblies, 21 students had lunch with the author, talking about how the book affected them all the while.
Costelloe noted, “Teachers prepared the students so thoroughly with class discussions and activities that ensured they understood the many layers and nuances of the story.”
In addition to discussing the book’s subject matter, the prolific and award-winning author gave young aspiring writers advice. “There are two levels inside a story, the emotional journey and the conflict. For the emotional part, look inside your heart and soul to connect to your main character,” she suggested. “Walk in every character’s shoes.”