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If you are any part of the children’s literature community, you’ve heard the conversations currently being had about under various hashtags: most visibly, #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices. For the non-initiated, these hashtags represent two, shall we say, movements, in the kidlit world — both long overdue. The publishing world has been extraordinarily slow to respond to calls for more representation, more diversity, and more people telling their own stories. So even though these are difficult, nuanced, sometimes upsetting conversations, most of us agree that it’s about time.

If you think I’m exaggerating, about the lack of diversity in children’s literature, take a look at this graphic produced by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reflecting representation of depictions of race in children’s lit:

And these numbers are UP a bit since the last 2015, the last time such a study was done.

If you want to read more about the ongoing discussion, look here (this one is over 20 years old, and more relevant than ever) or here or here, or listen to author Kekla Magoon discuss it clearly in this podcast episode from author Grace Lin‘s excellent podcast, Kidlit Women.

The discussion and belated addressing of the problem is great, but it’s also controversial. Some writers feel they are being censored, or that they can’t write right now if they are white. Some people think it’s too late. And some, many, are celebrating. Questions like:

What happens to writers who don’t belong to under-represented or marginalized groups? Does this mean people “without hashtags” can’t get published right now? Is there enough room on the bookshelves for everyone?

My own work thus far includes characters grappling with elements of mental health, because that’s what I know about: anxiety, OCD, Tourette’s, depressions, ADHD, and autism. This is the kind of diversity that I feel “qualified” to write about. And yet: I’m not the one who is dealing with all of the above: my kids are.

So, it’s not OWN VOICES exactly…. right?
It’s, what? ADJACENT VOICES?

So, are adjacent voices welcomed into the conversation? My fear: what if, despite my knowledge and good intentions, my stories actually speak for other people and I’m one of the ones holding back change?

This is the question that has plagued me as a writer, particularly as my own young adult novel featuring mental illness and a character with Asperger’s is making its rounds throughout publishing houses as I write.

Can I write about these issues? Am I the right person to tell this story?

Or, should I “step aside,” as Kekla Magoon requests of white writers writing about issues of race? Do the same rules apply when writing about disability and mental health as they do for issues of race and culture? Does being adjacent to an under-represented group give me the knowledge and experience to depict the experience with empathy, accuracy, and grace?

I wish I knew the answer.

Instead of debating, though, I thought I’d point out a few books I’ve read that, IMHO, get it right. And trust me, getting it right isn’t easy.

A Boy Called Bat by [Arnold, Elana K.]
Elana K. Arnold and Charles Santoso’s A BOY CALLED BAT:

As far as I know, author Elana K. Arnold is neither autistic nor has an autistic child or close family member (I could be wrong — but it’s not mentioned anywhere that I could find), and yet she sensitively and lovingly tells the story of Bixby Alexander Tam’s character growth over three books as he cares for his pet skunk Thor, navigates new friendships, deals with change, and learns, finally, to say goodbye.

From my review of the third installment, BAT AND THE END OF EVERYTHING: Arnold expertly conveys the sometimes-too-literal but always thoughtful interior thoughts of a child on the autism spectrum, though Bat’s fear of change and uncertainty will resonate for every reader.

Bat and the End of Everything by [Arnold, Elana K.]

What Arnold does best is to show how Bat feels, and how hard it sometimes is for him to convey those feelings to others. My own teenager, who has Asperger’s, identifies with Bat’s innermost thoughts, as well as his frustration when others don’t “get” him. In fact, he asked, “how did the author know?” Arnold portrays a character with autism who deals with everything neuro-typical children deal with (well, if they had a pet skunk, that is) without making the story about an autistic child. It’s just a story about a boy named Bat.

Honest, warm, and real, in A Boy Called Bat and its sequels, Arnold richly develops characters who grow and change with time. I particularly love Bat’s relationship with his older sister Janie. Like older sisters everywhere, she both loves her brother and and is often exasperated with him. But it’s not because of his autism – it’s because that is how big sisters feel.

So it’s possible to write “outside your lane,” as they say, and do it well. I have three books (and more where that came from) to prove it.

It is possible to create characters with diversity without claiming a book as #ownvoices. But if you do this as a writer, be prepared for some backlash, and do your research. Be sure that like Arnold, you get it right. Not just because that is what people are looking for right now, but because getting it right matters to the readers who deserve to see accurate and nuanced portrayals of all kinds of diversity.

So I still don’t have the answers. But I love thinking about the possibilites.

Weigh in! Join the conversation.

(You might need a cocktail first.)

real housewives drinking GIF by RealityTVGIFs

Just when I thought I couldn’t love Amy Schumer any more than I already do, she goes and takes another piece of my heart.

In case you somehow missed it, Amy Schumer has a new comedy special, GROWING, on Netflix. I hit “play” the second it was released, eager to see how she would turn the joys and horrors of pregnancy into comic gold.

I was not disappointed.

First, she stood up there on stage, hair in a messy bun, wearing a loose, comfortable dress instead of some skin tight get up… because obviously skin-tight ensembles are the last thing anyone really wants to wear when swollen and miserable and entertaining thousands of people. “Yay!” I thought. “Good for her.”

And because I like to project my own issues onto other people, I have to admit I also thought it was rather smart of her to wear loose clothing so that evil trolls waiting for their next opportunity to pounce would have less to say about her growing and changing body. No doubt it would not meet with their high expectations of what pregnancy is supposed to look like, particularly for celebrities.

AND THEN SHE OPENED HER MOUTH.

Amy concluded her lament about her misshapen belly button with lifting her dress up, way up, so everyone could see the band aid on her stomach. And her granny undies (which again, anyone who has ever been pregnant will note, are far more comfortable than something slinky and sexy… and god forbid a goddamn THONG.) Her thighs, her rounded stomach, her undies: there they all were, hanging loose and proud. They were real (and honestly, because I also like to project what I would like to think about myself in kinder moments onto others, she looked pretty fucking great.)

And so it went. She talked about the divine horror of being pregnant at the same time as Megan Markle. About being so nauseous and severely dehydrated she had to be hospitalized (more than once). About how she was standing up there on stage not because she was so brave, but because she was contractually obligated.

She was funny as hell. And the audience loved it, because, as always, she was so very real.

And then she took it a step further: she began to talk about her husband. And that’s where it got good: as though it was just a regular part of her monologue, Amy very matter-of-factly said that her husband has Asperger’s Syndrome.

At some point while I was watching, Teenager had walked into the room (I hadn’t noticed — one does not notice their child when one is trying not to pee in one’s pants from laughter. One can’t: it’s physically impossible.). So he’s standing there, fourteen and grossed out by changing bodies and pregnancy realities, poised to run away in horror… when he hears a word he knows well: “Asperger’s.”

Teenager stops, turns around, and sits down next to me. I pause Netflix, because now that I’ve finally noticed him I’m thinking, ‘Will someone call child services on me for letting him watch Amy Schumer live? Being the brutally honest kid that he is, he will definitely tell someone who will judge my parenting skills.” And then, do I give a shit?

As usual, the answer is clear: “Nope.”

Amy spoke lovingly about her husband, the guy with Asperger’s. She showed a hideously unflattering picture that he painted of her (while she was at the hospital, no less!), told a story about how on an early date she tripped and fell, and he simply froze. “Nine out of ten people would have stopped and said something like ‘are your okay’?” she said, and then added, “No, I’m going to go on a limb and say ten out of ten.” (I’m paraphrasing here, so forgive me, Amy. You were funnier than I could ever be, and your timing was impeccable). Teenager, feeling seen, fell on the floor laughing. I’m not kidding here: he literally fell on the floor.

He was riveted. I was riveted. A well-known, popular, and outrageously real and hilarious comedian was standing there, telling the world how madly she was in love with a man who froze when she fell down instead of asking her if she was okay. It got even better after that, but to me and my son, that particular anecdote was perhaps the most powerful takeaway: her husband was just being himself, reacting in the moment. And it wasn’t what was expected of him, or what most people (okay, pretty much all people) would do… and it was alright. She didn’t yell at him, cry over his insensitivity, or break up with him. In fact, she married him.

The implicit message is powerful: people with Asperger’s get married and are loved, even when they do something “unexpected” (the usual social skills group parlance explains social cues and norms as “expected behavior”) The social skill language means well but, let’s face it: framing human behavior as “expected” vs. “unexpected” squarely places anyone who does it differently as an outsider. And guess who is always, always on the outside?

“Once he was diagnosed, all of the reasons that made [it] clear he was on the spectrum were all of the reasons I fell madly in love with him,”

she said a few moments later. In the days since, autism advocates all over have taken to Twitter to praise Amy for disclosing her husband’s diagnosis in such a positive and loving way. and yes, I’m praising her, too.

But more than that, I got to see how her words lit up my son from within, how for perhaps the first time, he felt no embarrassment or need to explain himself and the reasons he might do or say some of the things he does and says. Things he’s routinely apologetic about. Things that make him an easy target for bullies. Things that make him feel defensive and unlovable. Things that make him wonder if he will ever have a family, be a father, the object of someone else’s deep love and desire.

It might have been one of the most powerful moments of his life. And I got to see it, sitting next to him on the couch. I got to see what hope looks like.

And then she started talking about her cavernous vagina.

So Teenager ran out of the room screaming – you know, the usual. But I stayed, of course, and continued to laugh my ass off.

Image result for teenager screaming meme
It looked a little something like this.

When it was over, I wiped the tears from my face and went upstairs to dig out some old granny panties. Period day panties: you know, just my own private way to honor Amy Schumer.

So now she’s taken on body image, fat shaming, the truth about periods, and the ridiculous habit of cupping one’s baby bump in photographs, to mention just a few. And with a few words, she shattered long held stigmas about autism and cemented her status as my hero forever.

Amy Schumer’s hilarious book – I recommend listening to the audiobook version!

I can’t wait until she takes on menopause.

Brace yourself. I realize I’m in the minority here, but I am not a fan of the popular musical– and now YA novel Dear Evan Hansen.

If Dear Evan Hansen the novel came first, I don’t believe it would ever have been published– or if it was, it wouldn’t be met with great acclaim. I’ll try to explain why, but first, let’s talk about the original source material: the play.

It’s been hard for me to explain what bothers me so much about the play. I saw it with the original cast on Broadway and it was indeed powerful, particularly in its use of technology and the set designed to showcase the viral note that took on a life of its own. It was an original and visually appealing way, I thought, to explore social media’s power, particularly among teens. I also liked the music (it was no Hamilton, but really, what is? Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for ruining all other musicals for me. But I digress…), the performances were all solid, etc. etc. but something left me both unsettled and unexpectedly angry. What was it?

During the intermission I tried to articulate it to my friend who had traveled to NYC to see it with me. Was my discomfort around the characterization of Evan Hansen’s mental health? Maybe. I had read several sources that suggested Evan was likely a character with Asperger’s or some other high functioning form of autism. If so, I didn’t think they did a great job conveying anything other than Evan’s anxiety — mostly in Ben Platt’s twitches and mannerisms and the way his mom continually asked him how he was doing on refills for his medication.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that my Teenager has Aspergers (and a whole bunch of other challenges, like anxiety and OCD), and my Tween has severe anxiety and depression. I’m a little bit of an expert on Asperger’s and anxiety. And I was offended at the title character’s undefined, “Asperger’s-like” mental illness.

Asperger’s isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. Or for a lack of accountability. Or for not having the conviction of character to own up to your mistakes. To learn anything from them. Evan’s autism (like most of the other elements of his behavior and personality), isn’t developed. It’s offered in broad brush strokes, or worse, as a manipulative strategy to get audiences to empathize with lonely Evan. So I thought, well crap. That sucks. But this problem plagues portrayals of autism everywhere in our culture. Sure, it’s a bummer, but ususally it doesn’t piss me off quite so much. There must be something else at work here.

Maybe it’s the show’s treatment of mental health in general, which is half-hearted at best. YOU WILL BE FOUND is the show’s tagline, a message is intended to do something we as a society desperately need: to let teens struggling depression and other mental illness know they don’t have to suffer alone. To encourage them to get help and provide avenues to do so. To let people, teens especially, see themselves on stage (or in a book – more on that in a minute) and feel seen and understood. These are all crucial, a worthy centerpiece to a successful show.

Yet at same time, the character who commits suicide, Connor, isn’t the point of the story. Evan Hansen is.

And Connor, by all accounts, wasn’t a terrific guy. His own sister hated him, and comes right out and says so in the wake of his suicide (a line that made me gasp out loud at the questionable motive of the writers in that moment). Very little stage time is given to creating empathy for Connor’s depression– all that empathy is saved for Evan. And maybe for Connor’s family, who so clearly want a do-over with their son. As a result, one unfortunate takeaway is that suicide can lead to popularity– kind of like the classic Heathers, but not as dark, smart, or ironic. If “you are not alone” is the idea, then why is this show is populated by an entire cast of characters who are all alone, and remain so despite being surrounded by social media? If that were the message– that social media is isolating us all more than ever– I’d applaud. But it doesn’t seem to be. It’s too muddy.

Even more problematic, though, is Evan. I’ll just say it:

Evan Hansen is kind of an asshole.

Sure, his whole debacle starts out innocently enough with a well-meaning therapist’s suggestion that Evan write a letter to himself being mistaken for Connor’s suicide note. It makes sense that Evan doesn’t know what to do in the moment, in the face of grieving parents so clearly grasping for any understanding of the loss of their son.

But Evan makes terrible choice after terrible choice. In the end, I really hoped there would be real fallout from his lies, or at least some character growth or sense of responsibility in Evan’s. There isn’t. It’s unsatisfying. It’s also super-problematic, this idea that he gets a free pass because of his mental illness. That anyone does.

“Jeez,” a friend said after my initial tirade, trying not roll her eyes. “It’s just a musical. Perhaps you’re overthinking it.”

Fair point.

So when I was sent the NOVEL to review, I was intrigued. Hopeful. Here it was: a chance for the show’s creators to delve more deeply into the characters, to do a more nuanced approach to mental health. To actually make me care about Evan. In short, to redeem itself.

Obviously, as the title of this post proclaims (as I’m sure, if you’re still with me here you’ve realized by now), the novel is just as bad as the show at these goals. One thing I’d say it does well: it clearly identifies that Evan suffers from anxiety, not Asperger’s. Outstanding, I can get off my soapbox about that now. Apparently that was simply mischaracterized in the initial reviews of the show, and repeated.

But Evan’s anxiety, like Connor’s depression, is acknowledged rather than probed. In fact, the book makes a pretty solid connection between Evan’s anxiety and his bad behavior — both problematic and dangerous to one’s understanding of mental illness — particularly when he just stops taking his medication and seems to feel better as a result (until he doesn’t). Like SNL’s Pete Davidson so aptly said, “mental illness is not an excuse for bad behavior.” Thus, instead of refuting my post Broadway production rant, the young adult novel succeeds only in underscoring it.

In fact, had the book come before the play any good agent or editor would likely have counseled the authors that:

A) Evan needs to have some agency rather than just get carried along through life, making no decisions of his own and

B) to read some of the many excellent YA titles out there that more effectively tell stories about suicide, anxiety, and even the eponymous power of the internet, or

C) perhaps they should write some catchy songs, create a cool tech-savvy set, and market the story as, oh, say, a musical, where it could get away with its problems because many theater goers don’t over-analyze the story (ahem). Really, one can be expected to do only so much in 2 hours.

Books matter. Stories matter. Mental health absolutely matters. Thoughtful and accurate representation of mental illness REALLY matters. And taking one’s prescription medication for said mental health can be the difference between life and death, and you can’t just stop one day without potentially dire consequences.

Moreover, stories resonate when they feel true, not manufactured to loosely string together a group of mostly only just-okay songs.*

So don’t pick up Dear Evan Hansen: the novel. Instead, read Neal Shusterman’s CHALLENGER DEEP or Sally J. Pla’s STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE

for compelling and empathic depictions of anxiety. Read the always brilliant A.S. King’s GLORY O’BRIEN’S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE, Margaret Mahy’s 24 HOURS, or Julie Anne Peters’ BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, I’LL BE DEAD for unique and

poignant stories that touch upon suicide, loss, and human fragility. Read John M. Cusick’s GIRL PARTS for a surprisingly funny tale of the search for meaningful connection in our increasingly connected world.

And finally, if you struggle with mental health, please keep reading.

Keep searching for yourself in books.

And I promise, you will be found.

*except, of course for the song “You Will Be Found,” which is lovely. And even better when Ben Platt and Lin Manuel Miranda do a mash-up with Hamilton’s “Tonight,” which straight up rocks.

This past weekend at the National Counsel of Teachers of English annual conference, a relatively well-known author dismayed her fellow panelists and an entire audience of shocked listeners by repeatedly asserting that the suicide rate for LGBTQ+ kids (and adults) is much higher than the national average because people who identify as LBGTQ+ are mentally ill. She also said that parents have amoral obligation to protect their children from LGBGTQ texts.

Yes, you read that right: A “moral obligation to protect their children from LGBTQ Texts.” And “LGBTQ people are mentally ill.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

I don’t want to use this space to refute her assertions because a) there is no refuting hate speech and b) author Bill Konigsberg already replied perfectly about his own experience on this very panel and the importance of countering hate with love. I couldn’t do a better job than he did.

But while quietly scrolling through Twitter and fuming, I thought about a blog post that has been floating around in my brain for weeks. I’ve wanted to write about several LGBTQ+ books here, but I haven’t. I feared that someone might misunderstand my words and think that writing about being LGBTQ+ on a blog that focuses on books about mental health may be misconstrued. In other words, I was terrified that my words might somehow unwittingly imply that people who identify as LGBTQ+ are mentally ill. You know, what that panelist said, that has Book Twitter up in arms. 

And of course, I absolutely, positively, 100% do not.

But that said, the struggle kids face when confronting their gender and sexuality IS in fact a mental health issue when these kids have disproportionate rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.  Which they do. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LGBTQ+ individuals are three times more likely than others to experience mental illness and/or substance abuse. Clearly, they need support.

As a resident of a liberal town in a liberal state, sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone approaches such issues the same way. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are echo chambers that safely cocoon me in diversity, inclusion, and rage against our current Administration. It’s a nice place to be.

But sometimes I’m reminded that my haven is misleading. And a little too comfortable. A nearby school recently hosted a parent event entitled “Understanding Adolescent Gender and Sexual Identity Development.” What??!?! A school openly discussing these big issues, educating parents on how to support their children, and simply talking openly about gender and sexuality? Woo hoo! It’s a whole new world!

And then, a twist.

And then I heard something that gave me pause. Some parents were less than pleased about this forum. “They are too young to deal with this kind of thing,” from one. From another, “what if they transition so young and then change their minds?” Or: “It’s just ridiculous the way these kids are grabbing onto all these labels.” And my personal favorite: Maybe we are forcing them to choose a label that doesn’t fit just to fit in?”

I had a lot of FEELINGS when I heard these comments.  Sadness. Anger. I asked a friend if I could come, even though my kids don’t go to this school. And there was another feeling that bubbled up from some long ago place, something that surprised me: GUILT.

When I graduated from an all-girls high school in 1991, one member of my class gave her senior speech on something powerful that, I’ll admit now, I didn’t quite understand. Time and maturity and exposure to different kinds of people made it clear, eventually and embarrassingly slowly, that this well-liked, highly respected classmate wrote her speech about being trapped in the wrong body. I didn’t even get the metaphor she used! I don’t even think that I was capable of understanding what she was saying at the time — I simply had no frame of reference. Her speech went on to win an award and has been remembered again and again by members of our class– always with admiration. 

I get it now. But I’m ashamed that at age 18 I didn’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t. I don’t know which. In any case, I have regrets. My classmate was hurting. Sure, we weren’t the closest of friends, but our class of 56 was reasonably tight for high school kids.  At least I thought so at the time. 

But clearly, my experience at that school was quite different than my classmate’s.  I learned, just a few years after college, that that classmate underwent a female to male transition and is living, happily, as a man. 

Facebook has brought me back into contact with this classmate, and I eagerly look at his updates and pictures. He is in a committed, loving relationship, and he looks much happier in his photos than I ever remember him looking in high school. I think about the books that were available to him when he was growing up: not many. Could he see himself in books? Did he feel terribly alone? Was there anyone who knew and supported him? I hope so. Trans characters just weren’t available then. Thank goodness they are now. There were barely gay characters! Gender wasn’t considered a spectrum, as it is today. He must have been very alone. 

But ah, children’s literature. Always ahead of the curve. In 1969 (1969!) John Donovan wrote the gay-themed I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip. In 1982 Nancy Garden published the first YA lesbian story: the often-banned Annie on My Mind

Sorry for the grainy images… but it’s enough to get the idea. The girls aren’t even touching until 1992! There’s also a cover somewhere of them actually kissing, I believe, but I was unable to find it.
 

More and more queer fiction has emerged in recent years, from works by David Levithan, Bill Konigsberg, and John Green, Amy Rose Capetta, Mackenzi Lee, Alex Gino, Jacqueline Woodson, and Jandy Nelson, to name just a few. Some contain themes about gender, some about sexuality. Some touch upon both.

All are stories that need to be told.

Special shout out here to Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Printz award winning, gorgeous Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (fun fact: the audiobook is extra-amazing because it’s voiced by none other than the swoony Lin-Manuel Miranda!). But despite the prevalence of gay and bisexual stories and general queer themes, transgender books have been a bit slower to appear on the children’s literature scene.

In recent years a variety of queer themed texts have exploded in children’s lit– a number that prompted that NCTE panelist to lament that “only 3-4% of kids identify as LGBTQ. So why are so many books being devoted to them?” 

There are many texts for young adult and middle grade readers– and lately even picturebooks, that depict both kids facing and accepting their own questions about themselves, gender, and sexuality. And there are many, many blogs and bloggers far more qualified than I am to write about them — they certainly don’t need me, a cis, straight white woman, to speak for them.

But my point: these books aren’t just for LGBTQ+ kids.

You don’t have to be queer to connect with beautiful writing, deep characterization, sublime storytelling, and the aching magic of first love. You don’t even need to know how you identify. Maybe Some are cis-gender, some are trans. Some are gender fluid or not quite sure where they stand. But they are trying to figure it out, and thus giving kids both the permission and the space to do so as well. Even better, there are more and more stories about LGBTQ kids whose gender and sexuality isn’t the center of their lives or their stories– just one trait of many. Something that is one element of who they are — as opposed to THE defining element.

Progress. 

But for now, let’s focus on a few of my favorites:

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephardt

 Gephardt is a  masterful storyteller, particularly in the way she depicts unlikely friendships. This is one of my favorite books of 2018. It’s the story of a transgender girl, Lily, and her unlikely and 100% believable and satisfying friendship with Norbert, aka Dunkin, a lonely boy who just moved from New Jersey and suffers from bipolar disorder. So we get mental illness AND a transgender character! HUZZAH! Lily and Dunkin is a hopeful, sad, authentic story. Lily’s parents are mostly loving– but confused and often at odds with how to handle their child’s gender identity. Sometimes I wanted to throttle them. Even so, I find their portrayal very honest, and thus effective. You want Lily’s father, in particular, to be more supportive, but his lack of support and understanding is also part of a story that readers need. The characters of Lily and Dunkin both live in my heart. I want to hand this story to any parent who thought the school’s panel on gender and sexuality isn’t vital. It will change their minds.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

I could not love this book more. Really. I’m a little in awe of the author, as everything she writes is powerful, nuanced, and just feels so true. There are many young adult stories depicting girls who like girls, but few for middle grade readers.

Ivy’s story is particularly poignant in that her feelings for her friend June are conveyed through art, in a private notebook that disappears in the messy aftermath of a tornado that destroys her family’s home. The stakes are pretty high. I don’t want to give too much away, because robbing a potential reader of the ending of a beautiful book is to my way of thinking an unforgivable crime. But trust me when I say that it all comes together in a way both unexpected and inevitable, just as it should.  The moment I finished this book (I mean, after I wiped the teary snot off of my face) I handed it over to a middle grader I know who has confided to me some questions and confusions of their own about gender and sexuality. I got a note a few days later.

It read, simply, “Thank you.”

I’m certain not everyone who reads this will agree with me that these stories matter.  But even if LGBTQ rights isn’t high on your list of issues to support, it’s hard to deny that these stories are life changing and vital for many navigating their way through this complicated, ever-changing world. Probably even someone you know.

Being a parent is really hard.

I’m tempted to stop this post there– everyone will agree with me and really, enough said.

But alas, I have a story to tell.

The other day someone I sort-of know (we are in the same writing community, but don’t know one another terribly well) posted an article about picturebooks about anxiety that she thought silly.  In her introductory comment, she wrote:

“Let’s face it. Kids have more anxiety because there are fewer children being parented. I mean, do you honestly think a picture book is going to give a child the courage to say: “I feel anxious when you want me to attach to whoever you bring into the house. Quite frankly, mom, I’ve had three nannies and attended four different schools in your misguided attempt to give me the “best.” That’s a lot for a seven year old to deal with.” Or maybe: “I understand that pot is legal and that I won’t get high if you smoke it in the other room while I sleep, but the THC in the air still gets into my system. Because of my lack of a blood/brain barrier, it deposits into my brain creating paranoia for hours and days later.” Of course not. And these are just two of the myriad of issues children are dealing with today.”**

Um. First: WTF does that even mean? Those examples are like, off the wall.

And then the rage set in.

Now I know better than to engage in a debate over Facebook, really I do. But I couldn’t get past this one — particularly because it was written by someone who is not herself a parent.

So I replied with this:

Your assumptions on mental illness are both off and, frankly, offensive. Your oversimplified take reminds me of when autism was blamed on “refrigerator mothers” — in other words, before we knew better. Mental illness is real. It is hard wired. By your logic, I am to blame for OCD, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and autism (which isn’t a mental illness, but is also hardwired, and it usually comes with anxiety and other mental illnesses). It’s especially offensive in that your parenting experience is by proxy. I literally spend my entire life advocating for my kids because of their mental health issues. And they spend their time struggling and working their asses off to combat those demons. Anxiety is not something you can “give” your children.”

To which she replied that I was missing the point. At which time I just decided she and her ridiculous viewpoint simply wasn’t worth my time.

Why am I telling you this? So you’ll be outraged with me, of course.

But mostly to draw attention to the fact that PARENTING IS REALLY FREAKING DIFFICULT.

Whether or not your child suffers from a mental illness.

And it’s made all the more so by the judgement of others, who both implicitly and explicitly suggest that your children’s traits are a direct result of your poor judgement as a parent.

And it’s hardly just about mental health. It’s “that dress is too short” and “I would never let my kid leave the house like that.” And “someone should teach that kid a lesson” and “if my kid acted like that I’d….” Apple, tree, etc. You get it.

If you haven’t read Andrew Solomon’s astounding book on this very topic, aptly called Far From the Tree, you should. Immediately. It’s pretty hefty at over 900 pages, but now there’s a YA version out too that makes it more accessible for those who prefer not to lift weights and read at the same time (or anyone looking for a less technical read). This book is a study of being human, and should be required reading for absolutely everyone.

From my review of the Young Adult edition: “[t]he powerful young adult adaptation of the 2013 book examines the intricacies of family dynamics: how do the Columbine killers’ parents, for example, cope with their children’s legacy? How does the behavior of a severely autistic child affect his family? Told with astounding empathy for both parent and child, Solomon probes the myriad ways “vertical identities” (those we share with parents) intersect with “horizontal identities” (traits not shared) to create subcultures of identity where our differences are what makes us human.”

Each chapter title dictates a different horizontal identity that a parent must both love her child and contend with simultaneously; the titles are “Deaf,” “Dwarfs,” “Down Syndrome,” “Prodigies,” “Schizophrenia,” “Rape,” “Disability,” and so on. Nowhere does Solomon blame a parent or a child for the “intersection of identities” that are complicated and beautiful and messy and loving and eye-opening and community-building. Often at the same time.

I think about Solomon’s book a lot now as I review, read, and write. I write for children, but I want to empathize with their parents too, in order to tell a story that feels true. In another post I wrote about an overweight girl’s mother being just about the worst mother in the world for the way she fat-shamed her daughter. Maybe I was being unfair or, at the very least, reductive. Sure, this mother was pretty awful. But maybe that means the character needed to be developed more fully; no one is just one thing, after all.

I reviewed another book that gives me pause when I think about its depiction of parenting. In Braced by Alyson Gerber, seventh grader Rachel has severe scoliosis and her life is turned upside down when she is forced to wear a hard plastic brace that extends from her shoulders to her hips. Shopping for clothes becomes impossible and frustrating, she can no longer kick a soccer ball, risking her hard-earned spot on the team, and she’s earned the unfortunate name “Robo-Beast.” Worst part: even her mother doesn’t understand.

While Rachel’s struggles to determine how to fit in when you look different is poignant, it turns out that as a child, her mother also had scoliosis. So to her, a brace like the one Rachel wears would have spared her major surgery and a lifetime of physical back pain. For mom that outweighs the social foibles of middle school. But not to Rachel, who lacks the perspective of hindsight. Rachel thinks her mother just doesn’t get it; her mother can’t understand why her daughter isn’t more grateful for her situation. It’s a wonderfully honest premise for a story.

In many ways, our kids pop out as who they are. When a neurologist recently asked me when we first saw signs of Teenager’s autism, I said something like, “well in hindsight: birth.”

He needed to be swaddled tightly and didn’t outgrow it quickly like my friends said their babies did. He didn’t focus in the same way as the other babies in playgroup. He cried more. He didn’t sleep train like other kids, and as a toddler was shockingly averse to subtle tastes and textures that other kids popped in their mouths thoughtlessly. But he made eye contact. And smiled. And showed love — the signs of autism doctors most often watch for.

He was who he was. And he was my first, so what did I know?

He’s still who is who he is. And I try my best to parent that child, and not some figment of my imagination likely created from an amalgam of teaching kids, reading books about kids, and my own childhood. Because truthfully, my kids are even better than anything I could have imagined: both are real and  complicated and never in a million years could I– as a parent OR as a writer– have dreamed either of them up. Sure, there are some parts of me and my spouse in them, but they are unique, too.

If I’m an apple tree, Teenager is say, a pear, or maybe a peach.  Tween is, oh, I  don’t know… is there a witty fruit you can think of? He’s something zesty, hard to describe but  freaking delicious if baked into a pie.

I don’t think my choices as a parent have a lot to do with them being who they are.

They are themselves.  I just love them the best I know how.

Mental illness is real and needs to be discussed openly, with honesty and empathy.

Without shame.

 

This is why I write books for children. This is why I read.

The world is so much bigger than what I see from my small window. Open it wider. Step outside.

 

**Just in case someone was skimming, let me reiterate: I DID NOT WRITE THIS SECTION. AND IT REALLY PISSES ME OFF.

Lately I haven’t been able to post.

I haven’t been able to write much at all, actually. I find I am not alone in this phenomenon: many of my friends and classmates from VCFA report the same lethargy when it comes to our writing lives. In fact, we are all so brain dead, fatigued by the news, and full of weather-change doldrums, that my brilliant friend Maddie actually challenged my class (The Writers of the Lost Arc… don’t ask. It’s a VCFA thing) to sit down daily for a lousy FIVE MINUTES to write, because 5 minutes is better than no minutes. Let’s just say we’ve temporarily lowered our collective bar.

I’m feeling so blue that a measly 5 minutes feels like more than I can handle.

Teenager is home from his OCD and anxiety program but he’s struggling hard, backsliding and ticking more than we’ve seen him tick in months. All that hard work for him and for us feels like it’s slipping away.

He’s tired. Tired of working hard, of using a ban book to record “submits” and “resists” every day, of trying to keep it together at school and then going directly to an outpatient program for more exposure therapy and group work and cognitive behavior therapy to help him. He’s tired of working his ass off and not seeing it pay off. He’s depressed and frustrated. More than once, he’s said he wishes he were back at the partial hospital in Philly, where at least he was shielded from most of life’s other stressors.

He can’t sleep. He’s biting his tongue, grinding his teeth, clearing his throat– doing these things until his throat is scraped raw and it hurts to talk, or until a tiny dot of blood appears on his tongue. Only then do the urges subside. Until they come back. And if he resists for thirty minutes, an hour, or even longer, the celebration is short-lived: exhaustion will win, and then he’ll be locked in a series of vocal and physical tics that all come out at once. His brain resists– his body submits. He is losing the battle.

This is what OCD looks like for him (note: not obsessive hand-washing, light switch flicking, or counting– things that some people do but largely comprise the general, stereotype-reliant portrayals of OCD in books and movies. I could name lots of these books, but I’m not going to. Why perpetuate stereotypes? OCD is usually not what you think. Just, trust me, okay? ). There may also be some Tourette’s there. They can’t decide. Which means they aren’t sure how to treat him, or how to tweak his medications. All the experts wringing their hands and saying “I’m sorry. We’re not sure how to help.”

Well, fuck.

I’m tired, too. I’m tired of his pushback when we remind him to resist, to use a strategy. I’m tired of forcing him to do a mindfulness activity or some thought-challenging exercises. He wants to lose himself in Fortnite and Undertale… well, who can blame him, really?(Thank God This is Us is back. I have something to lose myself in as well. I hear A Million Little Things might be good for a tear or two as well. Yay.) Screen time is only to be used as a reward, but come on. Can’t we give the poor kid a break?

I’m tired of meetings, of phone calls, of submitting claims to insurance and trying in vain to keep track of them, of being told no, not this, try this? Hurry up and do an intake and then wait around and see if they’ll take him. Of providers saying they want to help and meaning it, I know, but not being able to deliver because HE’S JUST TOO COMPLICATED FOR OUR PROGRAM. WE AREN’T SERVING HIM, AND YOU. WE NEED TO TRY SOMETHING ELSE.

We’re all freaking exhausted.

No wonder it’s hard to write. To read. To think, even.

Shit. This blog is supposed to be about books, not me.

So I get up, scan my shelves, and do what I’ve done a million times in my life; wait for a book to jump out at me. They seem to know, most of the time, when you need them. They are excellent, non-judgy friends. And reliably take longer than an episode of This is Us to read.

Here’s what jumped out at me. Friendly reminders of characters I’ve known, fictional accounts that ring so true and offer such comfort and hope. Oh, hope. Hello. We’ve missed you!

Under Rose Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall effectively convey the seriousness of OCD, depression, panic attacks, and agoraphobia through Norah, who is trying mightily to manage the many debilitating elements of her mental illnesses with the already mind-boggling, angst-inducing process of falling in love. And feeling worthy of it. And most importantly, NOT BEING CURED by it, because that’s BS and insulting to those who are struggling. It’s honest and rocky and bumpy and hard and hopeful and true. Thank you Norah, for the reminder.

 

Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin, is a beautifully written story about a girl with Asperger’s (which is not, I should point out, a mental illness. But it’s a condition that is co-morbid with many mental illnesses, as my own Teenager demonstrates with aplomb) who fiercely loves homonyms and her dog Rain and is trapped in so many ways by her own rigid insistence on routine and predictability. But when she has to, Rose finds some untapped source of strength to save her dog and get out of her own way. Bring Kleenex.

 

Beth Hautala’sThe Ostrich and Other Lost Things might be my favorite book of 2018 featuring a character with autism. Olivia is thrilled to star in her town’s production Peter Pan and finally have something separate from her autistic brother, Jacob.But now Jacob’s in the play too, and with the inexplicable disappearance of his stuffed ostrich, he’s more unpredictable than ever. Determined to “fix” Jacob by finding his lost ostrich, Olivia makes unusual allies and learns what it means to truly be found. Olivia’s relatable narration offers a gorgeous portrayal of a rich and nuanced sibling relationship. And it reminded me (slight spoiler, here), that people with mental illness or disability or any other OTHER you can think of do not want or need to be fixed.

Note that these are all middle grade novels, because middle grade novels are awesome. Here’s a few other awesome MG titles that deal with all things middle school (which, I think, we can all agree is just the worst. Would YOU go back to middle school? I thought not) and have autism or mental illness deftly woven into otherwise fully realized, nuanced characters and story.

The Thing About Jellyfish – Ali Benjamin. Tween and I read it together… twice. It hurts and it’s worth it.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect – Linda Urban. On my list of Top 10 MG reads. And because Linda is amazing and her books are all quietly kind of perfect, too.

The Seventh Wish – Kate Messner (not mental illness, but an intense family crisis the likes of which is not usually explored in middle grade fiction.)

Chester and Gus – Cammie McGovern. Because dogs.

Counting by 7’s. Holly Goldberg Sloan. Because geniuses have troubles, too. A poignant, sharp story you will fall in love with about loss and grief and numbers and family. And a lot more… just read it.

And a few YA titles — because I can’t help myself.

How’s a girl supposed to choose?

The Memory of Light – Francisco X. Stork (remember him from my earlier post? I LOVE his books)

More Happy Than Not – Adam Silvera

My Heart and Other Black Holes – Jasmine Wargas

Hey, guess what? I wrote for more than five minutes!

Thanks to the books for reminding me how.

Kortney Price, Literary Agent

Virginia Shreves is the protagonist of Carolyn Mackler’s Printz Honor Book The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (Bloomsbury 2003) and its excellent sequel, The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I (Bloomsbury May 2018). If you don’t know Virginia, you should. She’s awesome.

The sequel begins right where the original left off: Virginia has developed the beginnings of self-confidence despite her body-size. The first book concludes with believable steps toward her own agency, including a moment where that makes you want to stand up and cheer. The second book begins there, with baby steps toward self-acceptance in the midst of a family

crisis. One of the best things about this book — and makes it not solely an “issue book” is that there’s a real plot besides Virginia’s body image; every character has their own story, and her sense of identity and self-worth is wrapped up in navigating her place in all that’s going on around her. It’s also about family loyalty, secrets, and parental pressure for perfection. And first love. It’s swoony, really. Read it.

There are a lot of middle grade and young adult books out there that feature characters who are overweight. Remember Judy Blume’s classic, Blubber? Originally published in 1974, I very clearly remember reading Blubber. Quite a few times, in fact. I recently re-read it and was appalled. Seriously. Now, no disrespect to Judy Blume, who can do no wrong, but it was one of those moments where you encounter something from your childhood and realize that by today’s standards it’s JUST PLAIN WRONG.

OK, a reminder: Follower Jill and Classic Mean Girl Caroline are best friends. Inspired by chubby Linda’s science report on whales, Caroline starts calling her “Blubber,” and it sticks. The bullying gets pretty ugly as Jill watches on, doing nothing. I suspect the book intends to be more about bullying than weight, but as a kid I definitely empathized with Linda and rooted for her as she lost weight so the bullying would stop. There are moments I remember very clearly: a gym teacher telling her that the rest would “come off like skimming grease off a frying pan,” the compliments she got from other adults as the weight started to drop off, and a moment where she looks down and happily realizes that for the first time, she can see her feet. I used to stand in the shower and look down, making sure that I could always see my toes. I also remember the cover, which I studied, examining the curves and ripples of Linda’s body.  A physical, tangible picture of fat to which I could favorably or unfavorably compare my own blubber, depending on the day. Note the new and improved cover above that changes that message. Thank God for reprinted editions.  I also remember a Halloween scene in some kind of chicken costume, but I digress…

Recently, I re-read Blubber and I was, in a word, horrified. Linda must some lose weight to be accepted by her peers, and neither Caroline nor Jill learn much from the whole experience. In fact, Jill only stops to think about her behavior when, as the tide of cruelty changes as it usually does, Caroline herself becomes the class’s target. Her self-reflection can pretty much be summed up as, “I better get my shit together before they turn on me!” 

There are good things to say about Blubber too, and I feel the need to reiterate, all hail Judy Blume. She understands childhood and growing up like absolutely no one else, and more than once the characters she created saved me. And every voracious reader I know.

But that shit would never fly in 2018. Thank goodness.

Virginia Shreves, on the other hand, stands in the elevator in her NYC building and contemplates telling an elderly, intrusive neighbor to fuck off when the woman incessantly feels the need to comment on Virginia’s physical appearance. She doesn’t; instead she gives herself permission to ignore the woman and not take her unkind, thoughtless words to heart. She grabs a highly caloric vitamin water from the fridge after a walk in front of the eagle eye of her calorie counting mother because she is thirsty, goddamit, and water isn’t going to cut it. She realizes she doesn’t have to settle for a boy she doesn’t really like, because really, they both deserve better. She allows herself to believe that a new boy likes her and does indeed find her attractive for real, and not because he’s a “chubby chaser.”

Like most of us, she takes tiny steps, both forward and backward, toward self-acceptance. She does not try to lose weight or agree to wear the burlap sacs her gym-rat mother wants to hide her body in. And most importantly, she puts her body’s importance in perspective, slowly realizing that it is just a tiny part of all that she is.

Like I said, Virginia Shreves is awesome.

Here’s some other YA reads that deal with overweight teens and their myriad struggles with their bodies. Their journeys toward self-acceptance aren’t perfect– of course not, because that wouldn’t be believable. But it’s fantastic to see so much body positivity in recent books. Though I know we’re still a long way off and that media imagery is even more powerful today than it was when I was a kid (and the actresses and models are much thinner now, aren’t they? Ever watch reruns of 80s movies and shows? There is some roundness that is notably absent in today’s media), there’s a part of me that reads and cheers for these characters and their private quests. And the chubby girl still inside of me hopes hard that there’s not some little girl or boy standing in the shower, looking down to make sure they can always see their toes.

In Kelly Barton’s  45 Pounds (More or Less) –  16 year-old (and size 17) Ann vows to lose 45 pounds for her aunt’s upcoming wedding. What’s most interesting about Ann’s struggle with food and her body is the way it ties into her mother’s own struggles with anorexia. I’m fascinated by the way parents (mostly mothers, but not exclusively) pass down their own body dysmorphia and self-acceptance (or lack thereof) to their daughters (and sons). It shows up in so many ways in children’s fiction.

Beth Felhbaum – Big Fat Disaster – Okay, be warned: Colby’s mother is a truly horrible, self-centered person. She fat-shames her daughter so cruelly that Colby eventually tries to commit suicide (There’s more to it than just the fat shaming, but that’s a huge part of it. Her entire family turns against her when she accidentally sabotages her father’s political career). This is a powerful and original story about family, self-hatred and shame. And more fascinating, heart-breaking mother/daughter dynamics.

DumplinJulie Murphy’s YA is a love letter to Dolly Parton, Texas, and bodypositivity,and there’s a decent chance you’ll wish protagonist Willow Dean was your own best friend. She’s plus-sized and mostly okay with it, but first love makes her doubt herself. So she enters a beauty pageant to get her mojo back. She’s brave and fearless and totally human. The audiobook to this is especially good. Read it before the movie comes out!

The Upside of UnrequitedIMHO Becky Albertelli‘s depictions of about characters who feel like outsiders are incredibly compelling. (Did you see Love, Simon? It’s adapted from her first novel, Simon vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda, which as always, is better than the movie). I love protagonist Molly, her twin sister, and her two moms, so, so much. But my favorite thing about Molly is that her quest for identity is about something other than her size.

K.L. Going’s Fat Kid Rules the World – This book is so incredible. First, it is about an overweight boy, Troy, which is something we don’t see as much. Second, Troy’s journey is unique in that his own fat body becomes a site of empowerment rather than a site of humiliation. In other words, his fatness helps him in his journey — it’s a huge part of it. And not only does he somewhat passively not change, like some of the characters above, he actively learns to use his fat, flawed body as an embodiment of his own power. It’s pretty ground-breaking.

Oh my God, I have so many more books to write about. But this is already too long and it’s possible that you are not as drawn to subversion of the ugly duckling paradigm as I am. But in case you are, here are few other titles featuring unique, flawed characters who struggle with their bodies in various ways. If you want more, contact me!

The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles) – Amy Spalding – trust me you will LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!

Fat Angie – e.E. Charlton-Trujillo – not a personal favorite, but it’s worth reading, and Angie’s self-hatred and disbelief that new girl KC could possibly find her attractive is rather harrowing

You, Me, and Him – Kris Dinnison – fresh and funny romantic comedy

The Art of Starving – Sam J. Miller – Matt’s not fat– he has anorexia, and the portrayal of an eating disorder in a male is stellar.

 

Finally, a disclaimer for my very sensitive mother:

THIS BLOG POST IS NOT ABOUT YOU. I PROMISE.

Image result for i'm here peter reynoldsEveryone has heard the term quirky, right? Used in varying contexts, often in slightly apologetic, hushed tones: “she’s kind of quirky.” Yeah, those kids are a little quirky.” “They have their hands full with that one – he’s really quirky.” Maybe even, “I hear that’s a school for quirky kids.”

And on and on.

“Quirky” has become the socially acceptable way of saying “not normal.”

Or doesn’t fit in. Normal isn’t something people can say anymore– with good reason, mind you. People (myself included) bristle at the term “normal,” thrown around as though its without judgment when oh, it so is. But quirky is the term for now.

Clearly, the word “quirky” is NOT without judgment. It means not adhering to acceptable norms. Or perhaps you are more familiar with quirky’s cousins: spirited, explosive, high-energy. Did I forget any? No matter. Same thing.

That is to say, society has designated a very small slice of itself to things that are blissfully, happily, “NORMAL:” medium-high intelligence (but not too high!), a particular body type, follows the rules, etc. I’m sure the definition changes depending on geography, income, and education– each community has it’s own quirks (see what I did there?!), but you know what I mean.

For developing kids of school age, “normal” tends to mean sitting quietly in chairs as instructed, raising hands instead of calling out, not challenging authority in any way, dressing “appropriately” (another term that, let’s face it, is ALL about judgment), and generally not making waves.

My kids don’t do those things. My now-teenager got kicked out of three preschools because they didn’t quite know what to do with him. They all agreed he was exceptionally bright. And he wasn’t a trouble maker– he just didn’t follow the rules like the other kids. In one, for example, instead of creating whatever daily project was assigned, he took all the different colored tapes and wrapped them around and around the bases of the chairs (now we have to unravel all this; what a waste). Or stapled designs on colored paper (not okay: wasting staples). Or he stood up and spun around the classroom when it was circle time because spinning felt good to him (well, everyone will want to, and we can’t have that).

If I wasn’t visibly judged, like the director of one preschool* did every single  day at pick up when she was visibly irritated with having to step in yet again, I found myself explaining him, sometimes apologetically, to other parents. I’m so angry with myself now for feeling the need to do that– and for them for making me feel like I had to.

At age five one of my kids tried our town’s popular pre-and post kindergarten tradition: Kindergarten Soccer. It’s an awesome program, by the way. I’m not judging (for real). But my guy just didn’t get it. Racing up and down the field freely came naturally to him– huzzah! — but when he finally got the ball, he guarded it fiercely. Another teammate zoomed over to take it from him and pass it toward the goal, and he was totally distraught. He looked to me and my husband in the sidelines for help and we immediately understood the problem. He had worked so hard for that ball, so it was his. He knew the usual rules: you can’t take something from another kid just because you want it. If he did that in preschool, he was reprimanded and reminded to share. So why was it okay for another kid to just up and take the ball from him– and get CHEERED for it?  His confused face displayed the five-year-old equivalent of WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!!???

The kid had a point. It’s intuitive for some kids– the “normal” ones, to get this. It’s never explicitly taught, but they understand. In team sports you share in a different way– if it’s your teammate, it’s okay, desirable even, for someone to take the ball from you in the interest of scoring a goal. In school, don’t grab that ball/truck/block/doll – can’t you see that so-and-so is using it?

Did my other son try Kindergarten Soccer? I can’t remember.

I must have blocked it out.

You get the point. In each school, and in public school thereafter, my kids were given such labels right away– especially if they didn’t know the other, more scientific (or at least diagnostic) labels already weighing them down. Not by the excellent special needs educators, who got it, but by the regular ed teachers, other parents, and certainly other kids, who may have or may not have used the term but often kept their distance because different = weird and maybe even bad. This too is something they aren’t taught, but seems intuitive nonetheless.

Have you ever noticed that kids with learning disabilities are never called quirky? It’s a social or behavioral term,  a weak euphemism to signal different or unique– but not in a good way. Even the definition requires intuition, as though making it vague will ensure that the actual kids with autism won’t get it and be offended. Because different = weird = bad, but it’s not okay to say that.

Hence: “quirky.” A word that uses onomatopoeia to sound downright jubilant, so it must be good.

A quick keyword search on amazon for “quirky kids” reveals such titles as:

Quirky Yes, Hopeless No

Problem Child or Quirky Kid?

Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In- When to Worry and When Not to Worry

How to Set Boundaries for Your Child and Take Back Your Life

8 Keys to Raising the Child Who Doesn’t (Quite) Fit In

The Out-of-Synch Child

The Top 100 Social Rules Your Kid Needs to Succeed

…..And so on.


When I search the term “quirky” in The Horn Book Guide‘s online children’s book database that includes every single title published for children, it’s clear that reviewers (disclaimer: I am one of those reviewers, and though I didn’t see any of my own reviews for that search term, I can’t say for sure that I’ve never used it) my not at all scientific study suggests that book professionals use “quirky” to describe characters with Asperger’s or another form of high functioning autism, anxiety, and ADHD. In that order.

Here’s a few of the titles:

 Sophie’s Squash Goes to School, in which strong-willed, change resistant (read: difficult, rigid) Sophie realizes that her parents are right when they say “it’s good to have friends. Especially human ones.” Or Remarkably You — whose title says it all. There’s  Quirky the Porcupine, the story of a misfit porcupine trying to make friends. Ugh. I’ve long complained that too many books – particularly picturebooks, treat autism (and other issues, but I’m trying to stay focused here) with a heavy hand, reminding kids that everyone deserves love and acceptance. (Especially if they are quirky.”)

Again, you get the idea.

Don’t lose hope.

There are good ones out there too — though fewer at the picturebook level. One is Peter Reynold’s lovely I’m Here which is beautiful and thoughtful without being didactic. Consider the subtle power of “they are there” on the verso (or left side) and “I am here” on the recto (or right) with accompanying images of a group happily playing vs. one kid, sitting quietly alone. Reynolds doesn’t label his protagonist, by the way, which I love.Image result for i'm here peter reynolds

Because don’t all kids feel lonely sometimes, quirky or not?

Compare that to Uniquely Wired, described by the publisher as a book that teaches “valuable lessons about patience, tolerance and understanding”…  so “young readers gain a better understanding of his behaviors.”  Ok, sure, some kids need a little of that too, but does it have to be so preachy? Why does autism have to have “its gifts” in order for it to be okay to have autism? 

Indulge me while I return to my son spinning in his classroom. I wanted to ask, WHY THE HELL CAN’T HE JUST SPIN?  Once, I just asked, risking immediate ridicule for my stupidity and/or lack of deference to the rules.  It was a huge classroom that had only five or six kids– to my mind their low enrollment that year was my son’s lucky break. But the rules were the same whether there were 5 or 15 kids: no spinning. In answer to my question, I was given a blank, incredulous stare and then, carefully because I was obviously a tad slow: “Well, imagine if everyone was spinning. Wouldn’t that lead to absolute chaos?” Um, probably not? Why do you assume they all are dying to spin over there? At least one of them would probably puke. I know when I was a kid I just wanted to use circle time to take a nap.

Where is the harm? I may have said this to her, but probably not. (I wasn’t introduced to the elementary school mantra that EVERYONE GETS WHAT THEY NEED until a few years later.) But her mantra was clear. Anything outside of classroom expectations was unacceptable. I was afraid that if I pushed, well, we’d both be labelled as difficult. Apple, tree, blah blah blah.

Here are some fantastic middle grade titles about kids who have autism and friends and real problems of growing up. Just like other kids. Sure, they teach too.

But they teach in the way all children’s literature should (and the good stuff does): by opening up a window to another experience, another perspective, and therefore implying that it’s– dare I say– normal.

Books that teach by planting seeds of empathy that carry over into other facets of the readers’ lives. By telling a compelling story that features a character with autism without having that be the entire story, a problem to be solved. By depicting fully developed characters with autism who have fully developed lives, real friendships, and in YA, even have relationships (and are sexual! GASP! More on that in another post).

Phil Bildner’s Rip and Red Series follows two best friends through the many changes and challenges their fifth grade year brings them. Red has autism; Rip does not. Yet their friendship is real. It’s not quirky or played for laughs or sympathy. Rip wants to be Red’s friend because Red is kind of awesome, even when he’s having some trouble with loud noises or misunderstanding something. Rip helps him out sometimes, sure, but not because he’s supposed to. Because he’s a friend and that’s what friends do for each other.

This series (Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, A Whole New Ballgame and Tournament of Champions) also features one of my favorite fictional teachers, Mr. Acevedo, who totally got the memo that “everyone gets what they need.” He also fights against standardized testing, reads great books out loud, and coaches the boys’ basketball team. I wish he’d been my teacher.

Another series that gets it right is Elana K. Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat and Bat and the Waiting Game.Bat (or Bixby Alexander Tam) is dealing with his parents’ divorce, loves animals, and has a love/hate relationship with his sister. Bat struggles with the usual real-life middle grade dramas around fitting in and making difficult choices– but it’s not really because of his autism (though that complicates things sometimes, naturally). It’s because he’s a kid.

In the first book his veterinarian mom brings home a baby skunk (awesomely named Thor), and in caring for Thor Bat learns a few things about making connections that help him at school– where, by the way, a kid has been trying to befriend him for awhile and Bat just hasn’t noticed. It’s funny and poignant and has lively, emotional illustrations by Charles Santoso.

And there’s a skunk named Thor. What’s not to love?

This post is already too long, but I will keep the autism books coming. And I will never, ever, call these characters quirky. They seem pretty normal to me.

 

** a few years ago, that pre-school director was FINALLY fired for generally sucking at supporting kids with special needs, behaving combatively with parents, and not being remotely good at her job. I have never felt so validated in my entire life.

Those of us in the autism community know how this common statement ends: “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” This refers to the fact that the autism spectrum disorder is indeed a giant spectrum– infinite, actually. So while there are many traits in common for people with autism, there is also so much variety that it’s impossible to write a character that will depict a portrayal of autism that will resonate with everyone.

In my YA novel Me and the Mirror Girl, main character Lily has a younger brother, Josh, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Josh is modeled after my own son, the Teenager who is currently being treated for OCD and anxiety in kids with autism. Even during the course of writing the book,  the portrayal of Josh has changed as my son has changed. Josh doesn’t have OCD– Teenager didn’t, either, until recently. Because autism is super fun like that– quite unpredictable in its manifestations.

Sure, he’s always had a few tics, struggled with anxiety, been uncomfortable with uncertainty, and needed order and structure. These are traits common to many kids (and adults with autism).But starting in the middle of seventh grade, compulsions and anxiety took over in a whole new way, and the autism comes into play mainly in the way he responds (or doesn’t) to traditional treatments.

When life is tough, like it is for Josh and Lily in the book after their father abandons their family, all of the anxiety and “autistic traits,” to whatever small extent these even exist, ramped up. Way up. And things always get tough, in books and in real life, right?

So my point: it’s really difficult to write believable characters with autism. Here are a few books that I think, for various reasons, do it quite well:

    Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, which is also one of my all time favorite young adult novels, is the story of high schooler Marcelo who is forced (by his father, who would really prefer him to be “normal,” a word I usually take issue with but is so important to this story and to pretty much every book I can think of that deals with any kind of disability or neuro-atypical character) to leave his comfortable special needs school and spend the summer working in his father’s law firm.

Besides just being a great story about family, relationships, moral questions and loyalty, and first love, Marcelo’s straight-forward character is an exceptionally rounded portrayal of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is also incredibly self-aware, though easily duped (for awhile, at least) by the office bad boy who tries to take advantage of him and his friend/love interest. Most importantly, Stork works hard to avoid the usual pitfalls of disability tropes (like the disabled character having some kind of magical “superpower” or being sacrificed for the sake of an abled character. For more about disability tropes, see, for starters, this great discussion from the blog Disability in KidLit) There’s a lot more to say about this book— but just read it. It’s awesome. It also features a POC with autism — a rarity.

A recent YA I read and LOVED was Claire LaZebnik’s Things I Should Have Known. The autistic character in this book, Ivy, is not the main character, but she’s still the star.Her sister Chloe narrates as she tries to set up Ivy with another autistic boy, and fails to see all kinds of things about who her sister is. It’s a spoiler (but not really, because it’s obvious to the reader WAY before it’s clear to Chloe, which, by the way, is part of what makes the depiction of the title on the cover so darn clever), is that Chloe isn’t at all attracted to Ethan– she’s way more interested in her female friend, and it’s IVY who finally tells her well-meaning, clueless sister that she thinks she is gay. It’s AWESOME. Things I Should Have Known is the first book I’ve encountered featuring an autistic character who isn’t heterosexual, which is groundbreaking on so many levels. Many, many people with autism are neither heterosexual nor gender conforming (perhaps, in part, because gender is a social construct and persons with autism are unaware of many unwritten social rules). My favorite line of the book is when Chloe tells her mother that she could be supportive “maybe if you didn’t make everything so heteronormative,” to which her mother responds with a clueless stare. I also love the way that despite the fact that Chloe is the narrator, Ivy takes control of the narrative. It gives her a voice and a power that we don’t always see in autistic characters. Go, Claire Lazebnik. I can’t wait for your next book!

I have many more amazing books featuring autistic characters to rave about, particularly middle grade titles . Stay tuned…

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