Bonnie Feuer has taken her life’s experiences, especially those with her older special needs brother, and authored several children’s books that teach youngsters about differences, bullying, self-esteem, communication, and other important themes.
Ms. Feuer, who now lives in Connecticut, has her roots in Teaneck, where she was known as Bonnie Nannes. She attended local schools and made friendships that have spanned the decades.
“I grew up in Teaneck and I love my memories of Teaneck,” said Ms. Feuer, an educator and writer, now working on her memoir.
“I feel so proud that Teaneck was the first city in American to bus for integration of its schools in 1964. It really was a pivotal moment,” she said.
At just 11 years old, Ms. Feuer didn’t quite understand how seismic a change this step was for the nation, but she did realize that the integration “was a proud and good thing.”
While big things were happening in her greater Teaneck world, big things were also happening in Ms. Feuer’s more intimate world. Life wasn’t easy during those early days. Her father died of lung cancer. Her mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. And her older brother, Mark, had autism. Until he was an adult in his 30s, he was left undiagnosed and untreated.
Eventually, her brother became her responsibility, and he continues to be under her care and that of her husband Harvey. Mark has progressed significantly and today lives an independent life in Bergen County and works at a job.
“He was born first,” she writes in “I Hear a Red Crayon” her semi-autobiographical children’s book about growing up with Mark, “but I had to be the older one.”
Ms. Feuer had worked as a writer — a columnist for a group of local newspapers — sharing her stories of life’s experiences. Because of her real-life stories, Ms. Feuer’s talent and sensitivity were recognized, and she began working in special education in the early 1990s with youngsters who were in the third, fourth and fifth grades.
She has penned four children’s books to date, including “Voices from the Woods,” “Wallaby the Wannabe,” and “Goliath’s Secret.”
“I Hear a Red Crayon,” written by Ms. Feuer and illustrated by her then 12-year-old granddaughter, Kayleigh Boemmels, and published by Connecticut Press, tells the story of what it was like growing up in the 1960s with a brother who has autism, at a time when little was known or said about the disorder.
“It was hard growing up with a brother who has autism,” the protagonist says in “I Hear a Red Crayon.” “People always looked at him a strange way. Some shook their heads, like they were thinking what is wrong with THAT kid? My brother didn’t know they were watching him, but I did… and it felt bad.”
There are some difficult and challenging exchanges and interactions between the sister and her older brother. But there are also some moments of rare and touching sensitivity.
“One night, after a breakup,” Ms. Feuer writes, “I was crying in my room. The door opened and he walked in. Sitting on my floor in the darkness, he waited. When I finally quieted down, he asked, ‘You okay?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he left. No discussion, just wonderful, silent support, evidence that for an instant, he was my big brother.”
Another anecdote, involving a red crayon and how it sounds, is a seminal moment that the sister experiences in both defense of and understanding in how her older brother experiences his world. It gives the book its curious and profound title.
Through the years, the sister comes to realize the deep value of having her sibling, a sibling who has taught her so much.
“Although my brother still needs me to be the older sibling, I don’t mind it anymore. My ability to solve problems is sharper than his, but he sees challenges with a view that is unique and to the point. Because he has this gift, I often go to him when I need a quick and uncomplicated solution…
“He will never drive me to any destination in this world, but my big brother will always be there for me, in his own way. Very often in life that is all we need. Because I grew up learning how to know my brother, I can also be there for him whenever he needs me to hear his red crayon.”