Not that I ever purport to be unbiased on this blog, but let me just say right now that Kristen Witucki, author of the new short book The Transcriber, is a good friend of mine. I’ve known her since college when we killed our quantitative requirement with Intro to Psychology together. We also volunteered at a group foster home together, driving about fifteen minutes and another world away from our school to the boys’ little shared rooms where we’d help them with homework and sit with them as they ate their nightly snack. The boys were rough but smart, heartbreaking and sweet and they loved Kristen. Because she is blind, she had some neat technology with her sometimes that I think she probably brought along to aid in the homework help aspect of the job, but found more use in the dazzle-them-with-gadgets-so-they-don’t-misbehave arena. Kristen was a year behind me at school so my last year, she was studying abroad. I didn’t see her again until my first day of graduate school when she wound up sitting two rows behind me at orientation and we discovered we were in the same MFA program. Recently she’s moved far, far away but for a while she just lived about an hour from me so we’d get together a few times a year and catch up and cuddle her mind-bogglingly adorable son. She also wrote this recent guest post for this blog!
And now I’m so excited to get to write a blog post about her book! The Transcriber is a novella in length and scope and is on an imprint that publishes books for young adult new readers. Kristen’s style seems like a great fit for drawing folks into a book who may not have a lot of experience with reading. She writes clear, straightforward sentences that are simple to understand yet filled with meaning. The tone of this book is conversational yet brisk. The reader has the sense that the narrator is speaking directly to him/her, and is doing so with honesty. Because the narrator is a child, though, the reader is able to understand aspects of the story he does not, which adds depth and poignancy.
The first section of the book is a rant by the narrator, Louis, regarding the BLIND CHILD AREA signs in front of his house. He is pissed off about them for a hundred different reasons and by giving us the rant straight from his head to the page, Kristen actually gives us a huge amount of information within in the span of two paragraphs. We learn that Louis’s family lives in a house in the suburbs, that his sister, Emily, is blind and that he is sighted (“The sign should say “BLIND CHILD AND SIGHTED CHILD AREA.”). We also learn that although he clearly resents his sister for the attention she gets, he has a lot of respect for her and her agency: “Emily’s not stupid. If she wants to play in the street and get run over, that’s her decision.” He also clearly has an understanding of the lived experience of being blind versus the often-useless concessions made by others: “The sign also makes it seem like Emily is only allowed to play in the BLIND CHILD AREA…Emily can’t even see the damn thing!”
In the second section of the book–my favorite–the narrator back-tracks to earlier in the siblings’ childhood. They were playmates when they were small, best friends, partners in imagination. In depicting their rare feuds, the narrator thwarts expectations by illustrating the ways in which he perceived himself suffering more than Emily because she was blind–she’d color in his books because she didn’t know they already had words in them or drop all the pegs from the Lite-Brite. But they were close and he clearly loved spending time with her until she went off to school and made friends and excluded him, the annoying little brother. I loved the honest depictions of how he’d retaliate by hiding her precious things in places that, because she was blind, she wouldn’t be able to find them or how, once, he caused her to fall off of a wall and injure herself. Terrible, yes, but of course something a little brother would do. The next section carries on with this theme; when the narrator enters school just behind Emily, he is constantly compared to her and found to not measure up. If she was a great student even though she was blind, what was his problem? We learn that the narrator learned Braille not so he could help Emily or translate the tags from Santa Claus her mother wrote for her Christmas gifts, but so he could read her diary.
About halfway through the book, the reader starts to realize that the story is not just about this sibling relationship, but a larger family dynamic that I won’t give away here. Louis becomes more aware of ways in which his sister being treated differently is not always to her advantage. He is included in more and is privy to more information than is his sister, an adult role he does not relish. By the end of the book, though, both the narrator and his sister are affected by events out of their control, a level field of sadness.
The Transcriber is available in print on Amazon and available for people with disabilities on Bookshare, and soon available through Learning Ally. She says that a Braille version is maybe, possibly in the works, too. Go Kristen!