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Friday, November 19, 2010

My review of Unlocked by Karen Kingsbury! (I am so passionate about the subject of autism!)

5/5 hearts for excellence in all areas. 4/4 hearts for spiritual strength and a healing hearts message.


About the book:

Holden Harris, 18, is locked in a prison of autism where he's been since he was a happy, boisterous three-year-old. At school he is bullied by kids who do not understand that despite his quiet ways and quirky behaviors, Holden is very happy and socially normal on the inside, where he lives in a private world all his own. Then one day the head cheerleader and star of the high school drama production is rehearsing when Holden stops and listens, clearly drawn to the music. Ella Reynolds notices and takes an interest in him, learning about autism and eventually helping Holden win a spot in the school play.

At the same time Ella makes a dramatic discovery. Long ago, her parents and Holden's parents were good friends, and she and Holden played together until his diagnosis of autism, at which time Ella's mother distanced herself from the friendship. Now Ella's mom and her MLB baseball player father are trapped in an unhappy marriage and a life that is shallow and meaningless. Not until a tragedy takes place at the high school does Ella take a public stand against the way the more popular privileged kids treat those who are different.

At the same time, Ella continues to be a friend to Holden and in time their mothers realize that something special is happening. Hurts from the past are dealt with and all around Holden miracles begin to happen in various relationships. The greatest miracle is the change in Holden, himself, and everyone is stunned by the transformation they witness. Ultimately, the community comes to understand that many people walk around in a personal prison and that only by love and faith can the doors become unlocked, the way they dramatically do for Holden Harris.

My review:

Unlocked is an engrossing story and had so many emotionally evocative moments that I couldn't help getting teary eyed a few times. The author made an amazing statement at the end of the book in the form of a letter to readers that garnered a lot of respect from me, mainly because I'm a social worker.

The author made a point of explaining that no two diagnoses of autism are exactly alike. People are different and their symptoms are different. Levels of autism vary from mild (also known as high-functioning) to severe. She went into describing what autism can be like for the individuals who have it, and how it influences behavior because it is a neurological disorder. I appreciated that a lot. You see, I understand people like Holden and what the families go through. I've worked closely with children and adults who have a diagnosis of autism and have for over a decade now. I also work closely with their families to provide support for them.

Kingsbury captured the emotional journeys of people touched by autism in a profound and believable fashion. She showed that autism effects everyone. Stories like Holden's gives people hope and the desire to press on. Autism is exhausting to deal with and most children can't be left unsupervised for even five minutes. The sad thing is so few people truly understand the disorder. They often treat young men and women with the diagnosis like they are still children even though they are adults. The author showed this well. She also showed how jaded people can be about the symptoms of autism that they don't even try to reach the person inside (even though they are supposed to be educators.)

I would recommend this book to anyone who has difficulty understanding autism or the struggles people go through who love individuals with that diagnosis. As readers can see by Kingsbury's story, Holden was not an autistic person in the sense that it had to define who he was (which is one reason why I dislike that label). She showed that he was a real person with feelings, ideas, and a personality who just happened to have autism. It's such an unfair thing for a parent to watch their child slowly slipping away. I've had parents describe to me with tears in their eyes how their child used to talk to them and make eye contact, then start to lose their personality and ability to communicate and connect with people. It's heartbreaking and there is no worse feeling for parents than to see their child slowly slipping away. Like Tracy said, she felt like someone had kidnapped their child, yet he was still with them, but only in a physical sense.

On the bright side, I have seen children completely locked out of the real world and virtually non-verbal change through music therapy and different methodologies because their loved ones kept trying to reach them. For some it took five or more years, but I have seen parents blown away the first time they discovered that their non-verbal child had feelings and thoughts like anyone else. Their child just couldn't express it before they received the intervention that made a difference. So they were silent or did quirky things to show their emotion (like pacing, flapping, screeching, spinning, etc.) There are amazing people hidden inside and while not everyone experiences a miracle like in Holden's case, people need to see that there is a person "locked" inside. For some individuals, music is a very effective way to break through the locked persona and reach the person inside. Kingsbury does an incredible job of showing this.

I have to say I was skeptical of some things at first. One, because in the community where I live the way things are set up promotes interaction with children who have disabilities, so the teasing and bullying is not like it is in other cities. That just shows that mainstreaming kids with disabilities into classrooms with kids who don't have disabilities is essential to this type of positive influence. Anyway, that was just an aside.

The bottom line was that I loved the heart of this story. It touched me deeply because the author was spot on about so many things. I see this as a true ministry tool for families and I believe every high school should carry this book. The writing was excellent, too. But even though that is a given, I wanted to mention that the author made me forget I was reader numerous times. You may not want to read this book in public though, because you may need to explain why you are crying to onlookers. It's impossible to not feel some joy and pain while reading this book. The most intense emotion for me as I read Unlocked was the feeling of hope because I know this is true. It just reminded me of the reason I do my job. I think this is probably Kingsbury's best book yet, though I still have several titles she has written that I haven't gotten to read yet. Unlocked is making my best fiction of 2010 list.

Unlocked was published by Zondervan and released in Oct. 2010


Linda said...

I am passionate about autism, too, as my sister has an 8-yr-old with aspergers. I try to read as much as I can. It's such and intriguing disease, also. I have a child with schizophrenia, but I find it easier than autism.

smplcv said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diane said...

Powerful sounding book and a most relevant topic for today. Great review. :O)

Martha A. said...

I have a husband with schizophrenia and I cried through the book as it reminded me of so many things i deal with. His is fairly severe and although he does well, it is hard to not feel that he is locked in. I know what you mean about reading them in public though! said...

What a great review! I just posted a link to it on my own site.

I’ve been a big fan of Karen Kingsbury for many years and I thoroughly enjoyed Unlocked.

This is a stand-alone novel that I wish was part of a series – I enjoyed the characters so much I want more! The funny thing is that I usually complain about the way novels in series feel like unfinished books with too many loose ends. (shrug)

Anyway, I just posted more of my thoughts on this book on my blog at


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