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The Power of Reading: Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

Sometimes life has a moment of kismet.  Just yesterday one of those moments happened.  As I sat at the Reference Desk a mom walked up and asked me where “the classics” were.  She wanted her child, a daughter, to only read the classics so that she would increase her vocabulary.  So we talked.

I told this mom that there was value in all reading.  Reading, you see, helps the reader develop their world view, it helps them learn problem solving and interpersonal relationship skills, and it helps them develop empathy.  In fact, that is one of my favorite parts of reading: sometimes, you take a walk in someone else’s shoes and you understand things you never would have before.  Which brings me to the book Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman.

I was a younger teen librarian when Stuck in Neutral came out, a college student myself.  I didn’t have a lot of worldly experience.  I didn’t know a lot of people who weren’t exactly like me.  I didn’t know anyone like Shawn McDaniel.  And I didn’t know that I needed to think about what it meant to be someone like Shawn.

Today, my world is very different.  I am older, a mother, and an aunt.  If you read here, you know that I have 3 nephews who fall on the Autism spectrum.  They are high on the spectrum and have low to no communication skills, especially if you are someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time with them and come to understand who they are and what they are trying to say.  They, like Shawn, can’t tell you what they think and feel.  They are prone to meltdowns, born out of frustration because they want so desperately for you to understand.  And there are people who look at people like my nephews and shake their head in disgust, wondering why they “get away” with the behavior they see.  They don’t understand that there is more going on in this situation than just a misbehaving kid.  They don’t know what it is like to be a prisoner in your home, afraid of the meltdown, celebrating the smallest little victories, learning how to read the signs.

It was reading Stuck in Neutral that first made me begin to realize that there were people living lives that I couldn’t even begin to understand.  You see, by all accounts, Shawn McDaniel appears to be a vegetable.  He can’t move, he can’t talk, and know one knows what – if anything – is going on inside of him.  And without this knowledge, Shawn’s father thinks he is going to do him a favor and end his life.  Shawn McDaniel has Cerebral Palsy.

“My life is like one of those “good news-bad news” jokes. Like, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news—which do you want first?” I could go on about my good news for hours, but you probably want to hear the punch line, my bad news, right? Well, there isn’t that much, really, but what’s here is pretty wild. First off, my parents got divorced ten years ago because of me. My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn’t divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul—. He divorced me. He couldn’t handle my condition, so he had to leave. My condition? Well, that brings us to the guts of my bad news.” – Terry Trueman, Stuck in Neutral
Stuck in Neutral is told from Shawn’s point of view as he tries to find a way, any way, to let his father know that he is in there and that he does not want to die.  And readers turn page after page while wondering what the outcome will be:  Will Shawn survive?
Stuck in Neutral is an example of quality story telling that does the one thing that we need stories to do: it helps us take a walk in someone else’s shoes and expand our worldview.  For these pages, we come to understand more of what it would be like to live in a world where we can’t control our bodies, where we can’t communicate, and where people think that maybe we don’t have the same value that they do.
For years, I booktalked in the local schools and this was one of my go to booktalks.  Teens ate it up because they could – for just that one minute booktalk – wonder what it would be like to know that your parent thought your life wasn’t worth living.  This is one of those classics that we need to keep re-introducing to teens because it excels not only at storytelling, but because it lets us have that brief moment to walk in someone else’s shoes, a pair of shoes so completely different than our own.  And with current statistics indicating that today 1 out of 5 children have some type of health or behavioral issue, these type of stories are more important than ever.  Our teens are living in worlds much more complex than the ones we grew up with.  They are going to school with students that have Autism, ADHD, OCD, Depression and more (sadly, so much more).  Books like Stuck in Neutral help them to unzip their skin and begin to look at the people around them who may be different as still being human and having worth.  And that is the power of reading.  And that mom, she was glad she had a moment to talk with me and let her daughter pick out whatever she wanted to read.
From now until August 21st, you can read Stuck in Neutral for FREE.  That’s right – FREE.  Author Terry Trueman is coming out with a sequel, Life Happens Next, on August 21st.  Be sure to check back here on August 20th for a guest post from author Terry Trueman and a chance to win 1 of 5 signed copies of Life Happens Next.  To read Stuck in Neutral for free, please visit Epic Reads at http://www.epicreads.com/blog/read-stuck-in-neutral-for-free/
Stuck in Neutral has won the following awards and honors: Books for the Teen Age 2001 (NYPL), Books for Youth Editor’s Choice 2000 (Booklist), Top 10 Youth First Novels 2000(Booklist), 2001 Best Books for Young Adults (ALA), 2001 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers (ALA), and 2001 Michael L. Printz Honor Book
Please visit our Autism & Libraries section to learn more about children and teens on the spectrum, literature and the ways that libraries can better bring the two together.


  1. Great post, Karen.

  2. So glad I saw this post. This sounds like an intense read, and I'll definitely be adding it to my list. You are so right – kids need to expand their worldviews and what better way to do that than with books, to learn how to see the value in every person. I'm glad that mother let her daughter choose her own book! Great post.

    Randi @ Cardigans, Coffee and Bookmarks

  3. Great post Karen! I'm definitely checking this one out. It's been awhile since I've read something of this literary caliber.

  4. What they're saying on Twitter:Stuck in Neutral is a very interesting book. It really stayed with me.


  5. What they're saying on Twitter: I love that book!


  6. Stuck in Neutral is a good example of how individuals unable to communicate may feel.

    I did not like the part where the dog gets hit by the cars and dies. Then, the animal gets left by the side of the road. I thought this book was to show compassion, empathy, and understanding, particularly since the main character cannot communicate his thoughts to others. Not to mention, he’s afraid of dying. I don’t think the author did a good job conveying these connections when this innocent animal is left to devoured by vultures. The boy’s sister is obviously upset. The boy makes a connection with the dog and his eyes. This act demonstrates a separation from man and nature and does not identify one’s own self as an animal, which we are. I see too much of this happening in the world and think the situation could have been addressed with heart rather than separation and abandonment. For this reason, I don’t recommend this book.

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