“Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey” by Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman
c.2019, HMH Books for Young Readers $16.99 / higher in Canada 336 pages
“Normal: A Mother and Her Beautiful Son” by Magda Newman
c.2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $25.00 / $35.00 272 pages
You’re a pretty average kid.
You go to school, make friends, watch TV and goof around. You have music you like, foods you crave, classes you love, classes you hate, teachers you click with, and those you don’t. Sure, you’re special, but you’re a lot like other kids, too. Until, as in the new book “Normal” by Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman, you’re not.
Like most mothers-to-be, Magdalena Newman was excited to meet her first baby. Her pregnancy had progressed normally, everything was fine, and she had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary, but there was a problem: Nathaniel was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, which affected his breathing, chewing, hearing, and which made his face appear droopy.
Growing up, none of that bothered Nathaniel. He just did what other kids do: he played with his dogs, went to school, and made friends. Yes, he had a “trach,” (rhymes with drake) that helped him breathe. Yes, he was fed through a tube in his stomach, no big deal. He says, “… it was… all I’d ever known. It felt normal to me.”
But Nathaniel’s mother worried. What if his trach got wet? What if he accidentally got hurt on the playground? What if his hearing aid was broken? There were a thousand concerns but Nathaniel continued to grow just fine, though he often needed help taking care of himself. Shrug.
And then, a doctor said he thought he might be able to help.
Nathaniel was 11 years old then, but it was up to him to have the surgery or not. It would take a year to see if it would work, and he’d have to wear a “cage” around his head for months but it would give him a chance to live like every other kid.
“Awesome!” he told the doctor. “Let’s do it!”
As far as books go, there are a lot of abnormalities about “Normal.”
For starters, “Normal” is not just one book, it’s two: one for kids, and another for adults. Authors Magdalena (Magda) Newman and Nathaniel Newman contributed to both versions, and the tale they tell is one of love, risk-taking, and bravery, although Nathaniel denies it.
And that’s what you can expect from his portion of these books: He tells his story by asking for nothing but that readers believe him when he says there’s no reason for him to complain or pity-party, that it’s really no big deal. Young readers and fans of the novel “Wonder” will appreciate a lack of candy-coating in this tale but, of course, they’ll see through that nonchalance.
Magda Newman, however, writes a slightly different, more detailed story, through memories of her childhood in Poland and a soft-pawed Mama-Bear angle to this tale of parenting a “different” child. Adult readers may see a bit of melodrama on that note, but it’s quite forgivable.
“Normal,” then, is a good book for a 10- to-14-year-old, and its adult version is good for that kid’s parents. Look for both, share, discuss. As a dual-memoir, it’s above average.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is a book reviewer. Her column appears in the Lifestyle section.