The Importance of Neurodiverse Characters in MG
Sally J. Pla, author of The Someday Birds, talks with us in a podcast about the importance of neurodiverse characters in MG. Questions? Comments? Leave us a note below!
Sally: I’m so glad to be here and it’s so fun to be able to do this together.
Hannah: Yeah, I was so excited. For those of you who are listening, we … as we were emailing back and forth to coordinate an online podcast, we realized, oh, we live about 20 minutes apart, so… we are here at our local library.
Sally: Yeah, it’s awesome.
Hannah: So I am so excited. For those of you who don’t know, Sally J Pla is a kidlit author with two books out, called The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, both of which are Junior Library Guild selections with starred reviews. The Someday Birds was also very recently a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Readers’ Choice Best Of 2017 Awards, which I think is actually how WriteOnCon found you, because I think we saw, one of our workers saw you on the list and thought, oh, this book looks really cool.
Sally: Yeah, I’m so glad about that.
Hannah: Yeah, it’s lucky. And then last but not least, The Someday Birds was actually just awarded the Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award for 2018, which is an award for the authentic portrayal of disabilities in children’s literature. With that being said, it’s very fitting that our topic today is about neurodiversity in kidlit, specifically Middle Grade. But before we get into that, Sally, can you tell us a little about your books.
Sally: I’d love to. The first book that I wrote is The Someday Birds, it came out in January of this year, 2017. It’s a story about 12-year-old Charlie, who likes things very much the same, he doesn’t like change, he doesn’t like variation, and he’s got his world in good working order until his dad is injured in Afghanistan. And he doesn’t have a mom, he has two annoying little brothers and an older sister who’s kinda boy crazy and annoying, and they all end up on this crazy cross-country journey to go see his dad. So, Charlie loves birds, that’s his big thing, and he decides that – he and his dad had had this list of birds they’d hoped to see in the wild someday, so Charlie’s quest on his cross-country journey in this stinky camper is to try to find as many of the birds that he and his dad had hoped to see together someday. And find them and check them off a list. So, as a gift to kind of give to his dad.
Hannah: That’s so sweet. I’m actually halfway through that right now and I’m loving it.
Sally: Aw, thank you for reading. And my second book will be out in February 2018 and is Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. And Stanley is a highly anxious 12-year-old boy who is – he’s moved to a giant new middle school and it’s kinda tough for him, so he’s got that going on. He’s a comics fanatic, he just loves comics trivia. So he decides to enter this big, scary trivia-quest, kinda like trivia [?], trivia treasure hunt, all around downtown San Diego. It’s set in San Diego, where I live. And the goal is to win tickets to the big “fest”, the big con. So he has to really learn a lot in a lot of different ways what it means to be brave and step out of himself and deal with a lot of the issues that he’s been having.
Hannah: That’s so cool. So I have to ask, then – Stanley’s a comic book fan – do you read comics?
Sally: Oh! I have SO been turned on to comics by researching this book!
Sally: It’s been really incredible and fun. My son is really into it, and what we were thinking was, in kicking around stray ideas — he’s the one who prompted it, and he just said, “write something about ComiCon!” It was going on when I was – it was July and I was trying to think of what to do, and it’s just like, Whoa! Well, what about this boy, and what about anxiety – and at that point I was dealing with a lot of anxiety, I was on crutches with a broken leg, it had kinda given me a bit of agoraphobia, I just didn’t even want to go out of the house – and I was just thinking about how hard it is. Sometimes what it means to be brave is so different. We think it might mean tremendous acts of courage, but sometimes it takes a tremendous act of courage just to leave your home and go to the grocery store. So being brave means different things to different people and I just wanted to sort of explore that with Stanley.
Hannah: That’s so cool. I was looking at that book specifically on your website because I love comic books, so I was so excited to see this kind of weaving themes of anxiety and bravery in with comic books and just all these things from my own life, and I thought, oh, that sounds amazing! I want to read that! So I can’t wait for it to come out.
Sally: Yeah, there’s a lot of comic trivia in there, and it was super fun to research, especially with my son; it kinda gave us something to do together. It was really really fun.
Hannah: That’s so cool.
Sally: It … Like, we watched all the Marvel moves, like [?], and DC too, and we’re really getting into it together.
Hannah: That’s so cool. Awesome. So, let’s get into the topic of neurodiversity. First off, how would you define neurodiversity?
Sally: Well, neurodiversity is a little bit like biodiversity. It’s basically a term that means just that there’s a huge range, a big diverse range of what it means to be human. And a big range of neurocognition basically out there. And we’re all on it. We’re all on this big spectrum of brains and of ways to view the world. So to say that you embrace neruodiversity just means that you embrace all of that as part of being human, from non-verbal autistic brain to a highly verbal extroverted person. They’re all on this, it’s just the diversity of our neurons in our brain. So that said, there’s something called neurodivergent, and these two terms are maybe a little bit different. And when you’re neurodivergent you’re just not like most people, it’s not – the opposite would be neurotypical or NT. And a lot of people are saying that these days, nerutoypical, that just means falling within the range of parameters of normal brains and neurodivergent meaning more like autism or OCD, dyslexia, epilepsy, ADD, ADHD, Tourette’s, sensory processing issues, auditory processing issues, generalized anxiety responses. We all – everybody’s a little bit of a cocktail of some of these things. So just to embrace that, and just to see that instead of pathologizing people that we’re all on the spectrum, but some of us diverge more than others. And when we diverge to the point that it’s kind of remarkable in terms of our life experiences, it’s neurodivergent.
Hannah: That is really good to know. So why specifically is it important for you to write neurodiverse stories?
Sally: I really feel like it’s kinda my mission to try to populate children’s literature with characters that are neurodivergent, because I don’t think there are enough of them out there, and the statistics and the rates right now are – I mean, it’s like one out of 68 kids are on the autism spectrum. I was looking up a few stats and the CDC says that 11% of American kids 4-17 have an attention deficit disorder, one in 6 have a developmental disability of some kind, ranging from mild speech and language stuff to serious stuff like cerebral palsy and severe forms of autism. And when I go to classrooms and I talk to kids and I ask, how many of you guys have a classmate or a friend or relative who’s autistic, and every single hand always goes up. And yet, I don’t see enough of those characters just naturally woven into stories for kids. And that’s what I love to see. Not stories that just … sort of instruct and point out and say here’s this autistic character and he has these symptoms, checklist, but just naturally, just part of the story, just accepted as one of the characters.
Hannah: That’s so cool. So why do you think that it’s specifically important for Middle Grade readers to see this represented, not only for neurodivergent readers, but also for – I think you used the phrase neurotypical – neurotypical readers?
Sally: Yeah. I think it’s Middle Grade is such an incredible crucible time. It’s sort of like when kids are opening up socially, they’re becoming more aware of the world around them, more aware of all those complex social interactions that we do every day, and more aware of the similarities and the differences that they have with their peer group. So it’s like the perfect time, because it’s such a wild time, Middle Grade is just incredible and I love writing for that age. It’s like the age when the scales kind of fall off your eyes and you see the world, you come of age, you realize you’re part of this bigger thing than your family, there’s this whole huge world out there. So it’s the perfect time to address some of these issues about all the ways our brains can be different, and the ways that we perceive the world can be different.
Hannah: Have you had any interesting interactions with kids who have related to your neurodiverse characters?
Sally: I have. I don’t usually talk about it too much, but I do have an autism diagnosis myself that I received as an adult, actually after writing The Someday Birds. It just brought up so much – it was almost triggering for me, kind of, when I wrote it because it made me realize this was my way of viewing the world, or how I did when I was a kid. People would ask, “how did you get the voice of Charlie?” and I would just say, oh well… But the reality is that it was so easy because Charlie’s just me. So I ended up going for testing, wondering if I should, and I did, and I did get a diagnosis of high – what they call “high-functioning autism” with mainly sensory issues. So, when I admit that, in classes of kids – to answer your question – when I talk about that, that is such a magic moment to me to be able to share with them, because you can see the kids that are on the spectrum, or kids that have a sibling maybe, they’ll wait and they’ll come up to me after the presentation and they’ll want to talk. Either that, or they’ll be big birders and they’ll want to share stuff about birders. But it’s so meaningful to me to be able to just hear them. And they’ll just come up to just talk about – I dunno, just whatever, just to chit-chat, but you can tell that there’s been a connection, or that they’ve been seen, and that’s just what I live for, so that’s cool.
Hannah: That’s so inspiring. Did you, as you were writing this book, or even before, were there any other books that you had read that you thought had handled neurodiversity in a positive way?
Sally: You know, there haven’t been too many in general, and I think that what’s wonderful is that there’s many, many more every year that are coming out. I thought, I haven’t read this but I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Ann Ursu’s book The Real Boy, so that’s definitely one. There’s a Young Adult book that I really loved, Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo In The Real World. Something about the way he writes is just really lovely. There’s a book about Tourette’s that came out recently that I think is fabulous by Ellie Terry and it’s called Forget Me Not. It’s a Middle Grade book in verse. So those are some that I think are really good. I hope there’s going to be a lot more.
Hannah: I hope so too. I was thinking, actually, as I was looking at your Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, it got me thinking about comic books and representation and I realized there aren’t any autistic superheroes, and I was thinking that I hope somebody does that soon.
Sally: Yeah, that would be amazing. That would be so cool.
Hannah: I would love that. So I’m excited, so excited to find your books, and I’m hopeful like you that there’s going to be more representation of that later on. That would be cool. So, speaking of which, do you have any tips to help writers craft their own neurodivergent characters.
Sally: That may be a tricky one, because autism is so – it presents so differently in every person. The old saw: if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met ONE person with autism. Because everybody’s so different and has such a different collection of strengths and challenges. So it’s hard, there’s no one authentic correct way to do it. But I think the best thing is to really immerse yourself in it. Maybe if you’re a writer that wants to write autism but isn’t aware of it, go talk to a middle school counsellor, go spend some time with kids or people who do spend time with kids like that. And see. Just ask around, it won’t be hard to find those friends out there who are autistic or know somebody who is. And I think that holds for many other different neurodisabilities.
Hannah: That makes sense. So do you recommend both seeking out those people to get a full idea of your character, and then what about sensitivity reads?
Sally: Oh, yeah, very good point. Yeah, Hannah, that’s a very – yeah, definitely sensitivity readers would be good. I think too often there’s – in books that I find trouble me, books with autistic main characters that trouble me are the ones that pathologize or that show that the author has very carefully done their research and created a list of symptoms and is careful to present that careful list of symptoms in the character. It just kind of reads a little too textbooky. I don’t know what to say. I should say also there’s some really wonderful sites out there, there’s the Autism Self-Advocacy Network that you can find online, and their tagline is “Nothing about us without us”. And I really love the work that they do, they’re great. There’s also a site of an organization based here in San Diego that has an annual conference called Love And Autism, and they have wonderful resources on their website. So those are good places to look, too. Also, Steve Silverman’s book Neurotribes. There’s a great blog by this Erin Hyman. If you google for her blog, she’s awesome. John Robison is a big autistic writer who’s written some great stuff, notably Don’t Look Me In The Eye. And Nick Walker also has a blog. Those are some names of people. It would be great to find more actually autistic ownvoices writers. There are definitely Middle Grade writers that are autistic out there. My friend Mike Jung is one, who writes great books like Unidentified Suburban Object. I love his books. Combining an ownvoices author writing about, that writes about autistic kids – that’s something that for some reason I don’t see too much of. A lot of times autistic writers just have other interests and they’re writing about other things.
Hannah: You mentioned previously that there aren’t very many books that you think are able to capture that well and just have that sort of laundry list that they’re trying to check off all of these, what they perceive as symptoms. What are some, in your opinion, some of the most harmful or negative tropes that you see in neurodivergent characters, and then on a more positive side, what tips do you have for kind of correcting those?
Sally: I think it holds true for pretty much any disability – and there’s an –I should mention too, Disability In Kidlit is one of the most foremost resources to look at online for all of this stuff – but I think it holds true no matter what the disability is, physical, intellectual, developmental – that the negative tropes are more about using the character as a plot device, or using the character to make everyone else in the story feel better about themselves and the world, because of their kindness to the poor disabled person. I know it sounds horrible to say, but you do see that, and it’s super well-intentioned, and I’m hesitant to come down really hard on authors that are trying hard to get it right, because the intentions are good, but it does a big disservice to disabled people to be objectivised that way, or just used or even arguably exploited, but just used as a tool to make everybody else in the story experience growth. It’s a tricky thing, it really is, because you could argue the other side too, that it’s needed and it’s good and that’s what helps to raise consciousness about the issue, but I hope and I would challenge people to try to see it from the other point of view.
Hannah: Right, so just go a little bit deeper with it.
Sally: Go a little bit deeper and think about it from the side of the person that’s in the wheelchair, or the person that’s being used as the object that makes everybody else grow in the story. It’s definitely something.
Hannah: Speaking of which, in your book, there’s a scene that your protagonist in The Someday Birds, Charlie, who’s autistic, I believe, and he – it’s just very straightforward and he’s very honest and that’s just who he is, and it’s not like you say a plot device, that’s just his character and he exists within a larger plot, and I thought that was really cool, so I was wondering why it’s important specifically to not make their neurodiversity the focus of the story.
Sally: It was really important to me to never say that Charlie has autism, or point out the specific diagnosis, for several reasons. One, because if you look in the DSM, the disability manual that psychiatrists use now, the DSM 5, autism is a spectrum. Everybody is different, as we said before, and has different little parts of it. I didn’t want to just label him, I just wanted readers to get to know him for him, and love him, or not, for his own self. Before passing judgement. And there was one librarian that gave me a not-so-good review because she really wanted there to be a label. She said I like this book but I was upset that Charlie wasn’t labeled, in my school a kid like that would’ve had a label and we would’ve known what to do with him. We’d know what the – she wanted the label. That makes things nice and neat and pat and orderly. But for too many kids now, that’s not what it is. They’re almost cocktails of different symptoms and a lot of different stuff going on. And I think part of the trick of learning how to accept that and embrace that for all of its strengths and challenges is to not give kids labels. So I really didn’t want to put a label.
Hannah: Yeah, I noticed that too. And something that I noticed, even though you as an author didn’t put a label, I think a lot of the surrounding characters around Charlie kinda didn’t understand him and saw him as kind of an outsider and treated him very differently. One example that kind of broke my heart was when his grandma wouldn’t let him brush his teeth with a washcloth even though the toothbrush would make him gag, and the grandma just wanted him to be “normal”. And for those of you who can’t see me I’m doing air quotes around “normal”. And I was just wondering if the reader – I was thinking that must happen very often to neurodivergent people and I was wondering what we can be doing as a society to be more understanding towards these people as a group and then also just to empower them to live their awesome unique ways.
Sally: I love you so much for asking that question, Hannah. I just think that’s the question. And, I don’t even know exactly what the answer is except that I think it lies within your question a little bit. I think it’s just to respect what gifts each person brings and to have respect even for their differences and their oddities and understand it’s just different, it’s not WRONG, it’s just different. Like Charlie says to his grandma, I don’t understand what the big deal is, the teeth get clean either way, they get clean either way, you know. So what if it takes, what if you let the kid stand up and you let him stem for a little bit, or you let him rock in his chair in the classrooms, and you let the other kids in the classroom just get used to that. It’s maybe disruptive for a day or two, and then guess what, it becomes normal, and guess what, that kid who was a behaviour problem turns into a kid who can now pay attention because his body, his neurological – he’s taking care of himself, he’s taking care of what his neurology needs. So maybe we all just need to get a little more comfortable with allowing people to show their eccentricities and their freakishness in this world. Wouldn’t it just be a richer, cooler world. I dunno. I just have to say, too, I think autistic people have incredible exquisite gifts, and kids on the spectrum have incredible gifts and too often we’re so busy trying to normalize them that we don’t appreciate those gifts. And also kids on the spectrum grow, they’re gonna grow up and they’re changing in so many ways. It’s an incredible journey. You can’t look at any one person in this world as in this snapshot in time and say that’s who that person is and let’s put a label on him and let’s try to fix X, Y and Z, because they’re going to change so much. I dunno, I’m just rambling now I guess, but –
Hannah: No, what you just described is a world I would love to live in, where it’s just everybody is allowed to have their own differences and that makes things beautiful and not uncomfortable or weird or anything like that.
Sally: Exactly! Let’s embrace the uncomfortable and the weird and let’s make it into the normal. Because that way we expand our definition of what it means to be human. And it’s coming of age, you know, we were talking before about Middle Grade and coming of age literature, and it’s like I think all of us are coming of age all the time, especially if it’s a person with a disability, all of the growth and the change and the challenges and the struggle – there’s a lot of coming to terms with new life and new growth all the time. So I just think we’re all coming of age and we all should be Middle Grade books and be accepting of each other.
Hannah: Ah, I just had a question and I lost it. Well, I’ll have to rethink with it and hopefully not after we’re finished recording. So, what are some … well we kind of talked about that, so let’s see. Oh! – Oh, go ahead.
Sally: No… Okay, I was just gonna say, there’s something else about shame, I was gonna talk about shame a little bit, because like in Stanley and my second book, he feels ashamed of how he is and tries to hide it a bit. I think Charlie in The Someday Birds, he might not feel shame quite so much. It’s something I think I want to explore a bit more in writing, just because I think it’s the biggest dragon and the most horrible evil for a lot of people with disabilities and autistic people as well. Just that fear and that shame of doing or of saying the wrong thing. And getting at that a little bit.
Hannah: Right, absolutely. And there’s always kind of a … paranoia, I think, where you feel like maybe people are judging you, and maybe they’re not but because you feel different then you feel that you’re just constantly uncomfortable because you always suspect that people are always viewing you a certain way even if maybe they aren’t.
Sally: And this is all within the realm of what happens in middle school in general for everyone—
Hannah: For every kid!
Sally: I mean, do you remember when you were 12 and, oh my gosh, you would just cringe at every exchange in the lunch room that you would have with a crush or somebody that you really wanted to be friends with and – “oh my god, did I just say the most stupid thing??” I think we’ve all been there and experienced that stuff, so I think it resonates.
Hannah: Yeah. Middle Grade is hard.
Sally: It is! It is. But it’s sort of like a crucible for what so much follows in life. That’s why I just, I’m fascinated about it.
Hannah: Yeah. Do you think that writing neurodivergent characters in Middle Grade differs from say writing it in Young Adult or New Adult or … lower level kidlit, I’m blanking on the term.
Sally: Yeah, like picture books, or early chapter books. Yeah, I think it does. Actually it’s interesting The Someday Birds was originally a Young Adult novel and Charlie was 15 and his sister was 17. So when this book started it was really different from how it finished. I wanted to write a teenager, an autistic teenager that was really more 12 even though he was 17, because I think that really holds true. Sometimes your actual age is a little different from your developmental age, and eventually as things progress you reach the milestones, but maybe a little later than usual. But for many reasons we just decided it might be easier to make Charlie be Middle Grade. So we toned down some of the scenes in the book. There was a pot smoking scene with his older sister that we had to axe out of there and a couple of other things. We toned it down to be more Middle Grade. So I think it’s just that the adaptations for the expectations of the audience, mainly. I forgot to mention, too, I have a picture book coming out in 2018 called Benji, The Bad Day, And Me. With Lee and Low, which is a wonderful publisher for diversity. So I’m really, really excited to be working with Lee and Low and having that book come out. It’s about two brothers and sibling rivalry and autism and a big blue blanket. Sounds pretty simple, but…
Hannah: That’s cool! When is that coming out?
Sally: It’s late spring 2018 is when it’s slated for.
Hannah: I’ll have to keep an eye out for it then. Well, we have a couple minutes left, so did you have anything else that you just really wanted to talk about, or that’s kind of … anything that we mentioned that you want to go back to?
Sally: I just think WriteOnCon is awesome. It’s just like the best thing. I think that it’s a wonderful thing for people with disabilities, too – if you think about it, if you have mobility issues or it’s hard for you to travel to a big conference or you have social anxiety, which I fight all the time – how awesome is it to make a cup of tea, stay in your nice cozy lounge pants and just tune in to the most amazing people and ideas and things going on in children’s lit. So yeah. WriteOnCon is so great, I’m so glad to be part of it. So thank you.
Hannah: Well, yeah! We’re so happy to have you! So for people listening, where can they find you online so they can follow you and read all of your amazing books?
Sally: I am at SallyJPla.com and my last name again is just three letters – P as in Peter, L, A, so SallyJPla.com. It’s a very weird name, I know.
Hannah: Alright, well this has been Sally J Pla talking about neurodiversity in kidlit. So thank you everybody for listening, and again thank you, Sally, for coming and talking with us.
Sally: Aw, thank you so much, Hannah, thank you, it’s an honor.
Hannah: My pleasure. Alright, bye to everybody listening!
Sally J. Pla has an odd name. It’s pronounced like Blah but with a P. She is the author of The Someday Birds (HarperCollins 2017), a middle-grade novel about a quirky road-trip that’s been receiving some wide acclaim and starred reviews. Her second novel, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, hits shelves Feb 6, 2018. A picture book, Benji, The Bad Day, & Me, pubs with Lee & Low in 2018.
A strong advocate of neurodiversity, Sally lives with her family and a giant fluffy dog near lots of lemon trees in Southern California, where she’s currently writing about mammoth-cloning and time travel.