On Openness - Book Review
By Bettina Hu
Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure by Eva Wong Nava follows the journey of Open, a 10-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, as his class prepares a Chinese Opera performance of Journey to the West. In the process, he experiences the intersecting worlds of school and family, and discovers what friendship means along the way.
Navigating the world as someone on the autism spectrum isn’t easy, and Open’s voice reveals the challenges posed by what we normally think of as the ordinary world. Throughout the book, Open attempts to decipher the emotions and expression of others with help from various characters in his life and the use of different aids such as flash cards with different faces and a monkey puppet.
As the book progresses, it is clear that Open has a unique experience of the world that is marked by increased sensitivity to sound and texture. He associates smells with abstract feelings and ideas–“kindness must sound loud but gentle”; “Purple smells of freshly laundered sheets”. His experience of smell seems to be an anchor for experiences, and the language used to describe the smells is sweetly poetic.
Open finds solace in numbers and facts, often referring to them to make sense of his experiences–these are sources of stability in a world that doesn’t always make sense to him.
“I colour in Papa’s shirt with blue. It’s his favourite colour. Maybe that’s why I like blue too. Blue is a primary colour because it forms the base of other colours. Primary colours are stable. Blue is also a calm colour and it smells of Papa’s aftershave. I trust blue because I know it never changes.”
The inclusion of Open’s quirks and his classmates’ reactions can be attributed to the characteristics and mannerisms that author Eva Wong Nava observed in interactions of children with her daughter’s neurodivergent friend. Her intention in writing the book stems from wanting to “give readers a sense of what it’s like for someone who finds making friends challenging and to highlight the emotions that children–neurotypical and autistic–go through when faced with unkindness and rejection.”
Open’s story reminds us how difference isn’t something that should separate us and that varying experiences of the world ultimately enrich our understanding of each other. Open’s interactions with his classmates, and his eventual friend Paula-Bao Er, remind us that patience and kindness should be extended to all. The book is an interrogation of the world and society as it is, and prompts us to think about what acceptance and inclusivity truly mean.
This review is part of a series of reviews done on Ethos Books that feature representations of autism, as part of World Autism Awareness Month. Read our other reviews on a tiny space and Ordinary Stories in an Extraordinary World.