Dreaming in Typeface


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…

I recently finished Landwhale by Jes Baker, one in a string of several body positivity memoirs I’ve read partly as research… and, if I’m being honest, partly as my own therapy. The first part is working great, thanks for asking: lots of excellent research for my book, Me and the Mirror Girl, the story of seventeen year old Lily wrestling with body issues of her own that lead her down a path into anorexia. Well, that’s part of the story, anyway. But truth be told, I don’t have to dig very deep to understand Lily; that is to say, to access the part of myself that hates her body. I don’t remember ever feeling otherwise. I do have to dig deep to write her, though, because it requires an honesty that I’d prefer, most days, to keep buried under those layers of blubber I’m so fond of.

But that’s me. Let’s talk about Jes. In her memoir I recognize the same process, the ripping through the tough stuff to determine where it comes from and how to excise it. Jes is a great deal further on her journey than I am– than I will ever be, honestly. While I applaud her honesty and her wit, her sheer intelligence about the way we are controlled by diet culture, I honestly can’t fathom a day when I can just let all of that go. Jes Baker and some other writers I’ve read, Lindy West, for example, or the incredible Roxane Gay), do a wonderful and wonderfully entertaining job of celebrating their bodies and just basically not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks about how they look, what they choose to wear, and what goes into their bodies. As Jes has tattooed on her ample thighs, “MY BODY, MY RULES.”


Well. Amazing. I’m not being sarcastic; it’s truly amazing to me. Powerful, raw, and inspiring. She’s also funny as hell, and it’s clear that there are plenty of days when she doesn’t feel so great about herself and she has to work at it. But I had the same reaction to her book as I did to Lindy West’s Shrill, that is to say OKAY, GREAT… BUT HOW THE HELL DID YOU GET THERE? Did these women just wake up one morning and decide that enough is enough? Then they went out and bought tight fitting clothes, exposing their bodies in all their glory, and proudly walked through the street not caring anymore what people thought? Just repeating, “Fuck them, I’m awesome,” until they believed it? How did they get from Point A to Point B?

Because Point B sounds pretty great. There are doughnuts at Point B, I hear, and I haven’t had a doughnut in years. If memory serves, they are freaking delicious. I don’t anticipate ever eating a doughnut again, because the guilt I’d feel at having let such a thing pass my lips would never be worth the fleeting bites of joy. My mother used to have this little figurine near the kitchen sink. Ziggy, I think. Remember Ziggy? (Whatever happened to that charming little sad sack of wisdom, by the way? Does Ziggy still appear in newprint?) Alas, I digress. Well, this little white plastic Ziggy held up a truly giant slice of cake– that thing had to have been three, four layers thick– and looked at it longingly with oversized puppy eyes. In capital letters — capital letters, mind you, printed below Ziggy’s chubby feet, it read:


I can see old Ziggy and his slice of forbidden cake perfectly. I saw it every time I washed my hands in the kitchen after coming in from outside, whenever I helped with the making of a meal, and whenever I loaded the dishwasher (every other night, alternating with my sister, if you’re wondering. A simple enough system, yet I also recall fighting about whose turn it was nightly.) How does one shake off eighteen years of ZIGGY?

The irony is not lost on me that I grew up in a house that was filled with junk food. The pantry was routinely stocked with giant “family sized” bags of Cheetos, Doritos, and everyone’s favorite, hands down: Fritos. Cookies, crackers, creamy casseroles for dinner (it was the Midwest, so such culinary delights were the norm). Betty Crocker was our friend, and her cakes were divine. But you couldn’t eat a bite, or I couldn’t, without thinking “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” thus ruining the fun anyway.

How do you just shed that?

Jes never said.

Well, that’s not quite fair to Jes, who I think is rather empowering and awesome. I just don’t see how her own journey pertains to ME or my character Lily,  if that makes sense. Neither one of us can imagine it. Isn’t it like shedding some other integral part of yourself, like the religion you were raised with, or the effects of growing up with an abusive or alcoholic parent? Things, I know from books, that leave an indelible mark.

Perhaps I’ll reread. Jes grew up poor, so there’s that– there were genuine fears about not having enough food. She grew up with a perpetually dieting father whose euphamisms about Jes’s weight were deeply hurtful even as she watched his weight balloon and shrink in an endless cycle. She is regularly bullied by assholes online who say such uplifting and banal things like “why don’t you kill yourself already” for being fat. She deletes and blocks, deletes and blocks, continuing to blog and tell her stories and ignore, even as she acknowledges that yes, that shit hurts, even when the grammar is poor and the insults are less than creative. See, I could ignore the insults of someone with bad grammar; I’ll admit freely that I am a total snob that way. It’s not my best quality but hey, it’s really not the worst, either.

The worst would be giving in to that doughnut. Obviously.

So Jes Baker, tell me: how long did it take to get from Point A to Point B? And could you provide a detailed roadmap with very explicit directions for those of us who read and research diligently but JUST DON’T SEEM TO GET IT? If I keep reading, keep listening to body positivity podcasts, keep applauding the slow inclusion of “real women” in media campaigns, keep reading satiric novels skewering diet culture (Dietland by Sarai Walker, for example), will I wake up one day ready to don any bathing suit I feel like wearing– even ones I keep and try on periodically just to feel shitty and yet never throw out– and head out to the beach, lipsticked and smiling, to declare myself proudly a landwhale?

Will my first thought on the beach be “good for them,” rather than “I would never wear that bathing suit if I looked like that”? And this is hard to admit, because I’m a good feminist and true believer that people should wear whatever the fuck they want to wear and be who they want to be… but seriously. If you grew up in the 1970s and 80’s, repressed, backwards years, it’s now clear, how do you turn yourself into a woman who can walk freely in her own body and not keep thinking of the twisted wisdom of  Ziggy, even as I know– I KNOW, of course, that it’s ridiculous.

Body image is complicated. It’s truly a mental health issue, as serious as the others I read and write about, as insidious and resistent to change. There’s a billion dollar industry that proves it, keeps us buying products we know won’t really work because maybe, just maybe, this one will. It’s a sad, twisted merry go round, and I’d really like to get the fuck off.

Jes? Lindy? Roxane? Are you out there? Should I get a tattoo on my thighs? But then I’d have to show someone my thighs…

And well, that’s out of the question.





I wear a lot of hats. Writer. Reviewer. Mom. Reader Girl.

While wearing my reviewing hat I seem to have found myself to be the recipient of a wide variety of Advanced Reader Copies of books that touch upon disability. It’s not a mystery why these are sent to me: as the mom of two lovely boys who battle a variety of mental health issues, it’s a topic I know all too well. I’m glad to be a sounding board for these crucial titles and proud that I have some part of getting books on mental health into readers’ hands. It’s the best way I know of not to just get mental health where it should be– out in the open– but also for those who struggle to know they are not alone.

Little is more powerful than seeing yourself in a book.

Lately I’ve been getting requests lately to compile these books into a comprehensive list that the various therapists, teachers, and counselors I know can recommend to their clients, students, and friends. This could be a very long list, so I’m going to post individually about different mental health issues in different posts.

Today’s lucky winner: OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

OCD is pretty much ruling my life right now. It’s definitely ruling my oldest son’s life (he’s 13) and by extension, the rest of my family. In fact, I write this from a rented apartment in Philadelphia where he is attending a partial hospitalization program for OCD and anxiety in kids on the autism spectrum. My son is truly a triple threat, no?

So I’m learning a lot about OCD. Thinking about it constantly, trying not to accommodate it, and forcing my son to learn to face often nameless but nonetheless debilitating fears on his own. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking. I watch him writhe into various contortions while his entire body is convulsing with various tics, one right after the other. I can’t say “you can do it” or “you’ve got this,” second nature for a mom, because that’s reassuring him and it’s a no-no in the OCD world. I’m learning so much.

Obsessed: A Memoir of My Life with OCDOne of the books I reviewed recently was this young adult memoir, Obsessed: A Memoir of My Life with OCD by Allison Britz. Wow.

Holy crap. What a powerful memoir into the depths of OCD and then the first few terrifying steps back out. Here’s a snippet from my official review:

“[Britz’s] dark journey into sudden onset OCD is terrifying as each page of this raw memoir chronicles a more and more regimented world. When she finally asks for help, over two-thirds of the way into the book, readers will let out breath they didn’t know they were holding. Deeply affecting, this is a must-read addition to books featuring mental illness.”

I read Obsessed before my son began exhibiting OCD symptoms, but it came crashing back to me in full force once he did. Thanks to this memoir, I was able to understand (well, sort of) him– at least I was able to empathize. I got that he had absolutely no control over things that seemed so easy to control. OCD doesn’t look the same for everyone. Allison’s OCD symptoms look nothing, I repeat NOTHING, like my son’s. The teenager, as I will call him here, doesn’t drink Purell because he’s worried about contamination (Allison does). He doesn’t curl on the floor in the dark, completely unable to face the world (Allison does this, too). Like Allison, he does shut people out and isolate himself from friends and family. He does retreat into “safe” behaviors that are further isolating, which for him means Minecraft, Zelda, or Fortnite with “friends” he has never met who can’t see him ticking or hear him grinding his teeth or obsessively clearing his throat. This online world is a place of certainty, and OCD is essentially the inability to tolerate uncertainty. I got that definition from hearing, quite randomly and at just the right time (isn’t it freaky and weird when things like that happen?!?) from an NPR replay of an author interview with another (adult) memoir called Triggered by Fletcher Wortmann.

TriggeredWortmann’s explanation of OCD as the inability to tolerate uncertainty has been incredibly helpful in understanding Teenager’s insistent need to ask the same questions again and again even though I’VE ALREADY ANSWERED THIS QUESTION, GODDAMMIT AND YOU WILL BE FINE!!! Turns out that’s exactly how NOT to answer the repeated questions, by the way. In fact, you aren’t supposed to answer them at all, because seeking reassurance is a bottomless pit and the asking will never stop… he just needs to learn to sit with the uncertainty until he becomes habituated to it and it’s not so damn scary. How long will that take, you ask? I’ll let you know when I find out.

Excuse me a moment while I pour myself a cocktail while I wait.

See all the cool things we learn at Parent University? The main thing (ha, I accidentally typed “pain” there – Freudian slip much?) we learn, on Day 1 of what is supposed to be a 6-8 week partial hospitalization program, is that we are terrible parents. Oh sure, they don’t say it like that. They say “95% of parents do the same things” and “it’s natural, of course, to comfort your child” but we all look at one another knowingly and shamefully because WE KNOW what they mean: we suck, and it’s our sucking at parenting that has caused this whole big mess in the first place.

No, not really, of course. This is an excellent mental health facility and the staff are caring and kind and know we love our kids so much it hurts, but that is what it feels like.  Because turns out that if you have an anxious child, a depressed child, or a child with OCD, all the things you do to accommodate them and just get through the day help in the short term– and feel supportive– but really you are just making it worse, because your child never learns to rely upon himself. Helping him through it sends the inadvertent message that he can’t manage his anxiety himself. Picking him up early from school, or having his well-meaning teachers give him less homework, or excusing him from group projects, or tolerating chronic lateness and more things than I can list here…. all those things run counter to the goal, which by the way, is freaking BRUTAL. The goal of the treatment, which is exposure and prevention response therapy and cognitive behavior therapy) is to face all that anxiety, interrogate the many motivations behind it, and then challenge it. Kids in this program who are afraid of contaminants, like Allison Britz is in her form of OCD, might have to do things that horrify them: shake hands with a guy right after he sneezes and wipes his nose, for example, or eat food that has been touched by many, potentially unwashed hands. And just learn, slowly, painfully, to DEAL with how that feels and and realize that just maybe it won’t kill you after all until it eventually loses its power over you and you can go about your life shaking people’s grimy hands and not rushing immediately to bathe your arm in sanitizer.

Want more books about OCD? Try these:

 Middle Grade. The death of Cooper’s beloved grandfather leaves him so unmoored that Cooper finds himself trapped: he must complete every task three times, chew every piece three times, and have everything just so, or tragedy will befall. Sensitively depicting the onset of OCD, the story chronicles the family’s myriad reactions to Cooper’s struggles and follows them on their journey toward support. I can see this one acting like a life preserver to a kid who, suddenly changing, fears that that perhaps he is losing his mind. It also had the bonus effect of being a balm to my guilt ridden mom-soul: well, at least I wasn’t acting the way some of the adults in Cooper’s life were! No, seriously. The family’s responses, which range from scolding him to ignoring him to buying him more rubber gloves, are as normal as they are different. It’s not just kids who need to see themselves in the pages of books.

I do have more books about OCD, but lets save some obsessions and compulsions for later. Plus, we wouldn’t want all the other mental illnesses not to get their due. I do not intend to make light of any of these, mind you. But humor, too, is a coping mechanism, and I’m told it’s better than another cocktail.

Schizophrenia: I’m coming for you next.

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