Title: Marcelo in the Real WorldAuthor: Francisco X. Stork
Date of Publication: March 2009
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Marcelo in the Real World is a coming-of-age story touching on neurodiversity, ableism, racism, family, ethics, religion, sexuality, and love – in short, all the passion and philosophy of a teenager stepping into adulthood as experienced by a young neuroatypical Latino man. While Stork is not, as far as I can determine, neurodivergent himself, I find Marcelo to be relatable and authentic as a neurodivergent character: from his subtle stimming, to his sensory struggles, to his logical rules-based method for deciphering people, to his thoughts on life and faith and God. And, quite satisfyingly, the resolution of his story does not come with a cure or a fix for his differences: just an increased understanding of who he is and a vision for living in the “real world” as someone who doesn’t quite fit.
Title: Planet Earth Is Blue Author: Nicole Panteleakos Date of Publication: May 2019 Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading Planet Earth Is Blue, the story of a largely nonverbal autistic tween in foster care. I was apprehensive about stereotypes, afraid that situations would be overblown, worried that the book would be poorly written (when I have high hopes for a story, I also tend to have a lot of nervousness about it!). But what I found was an deeply moving story of a girl navigating a difficult time of life, seeking stability in an unstable environment, struggling to communicate, and learning about the kind of love that sees the beloved for who they truly are and fights to help others see and understand them as well.
I read it all in one day, in 5-10 minute snatches as I worked, going so far as to set up my phone on the lab bench to catch the next sentence in between pipettes. (This is not recommended best practice for either lab science or book enjoyment. I just couldn’t put it down.) I cried at least three times and was very thankful my coworker happened to be on the other side of the lab. And at the end, through all the hurt and misunderstandings, there was hope (which I think is particularly important as this book is aimed at the 11-14 year old age group, and when kids that age find a character they identify with they need to know that there is hope for kids like them even when life is hard).
The story begins with our protagonist, Nova Vezina, waking up in the home of her new foster family, having run away from her previous home with her older sister, and missing said sister profoundly. As the story alternates between third person descriptions – often including flashbacks and memories triggered by events in the primary narrative timeline – and first person letters written by Nova to her sister, powerful messages about ableism, humanity, family, and love come to life on the page. Early in the book, for instance, Nova writes,
"I know you always say 'Foster families are not forever families' and 'We should not get attached,' but I think you might like Francine. She talks to me the way people talk to you. Not too loud and too slow, the way they talk to me.
"She talks like I am a person."
Throughout the book, Nova’s feelings, sensory processing, and behaviors – the things that bother her, the things she gets excited about, the stimuli that overwhelm her, her physical expression of all these things – are presented authentically and seriously. They are just as real as any “normal” character’s emotions would be in any other book, and just as deeply important to her. Instead of fitting into the constraints of a stereotype, Nova appears the way a real person does: emotionally complex, internally conflicted about herself and her situation, and passionate about the things and people she loves. We can feel her joy rising like a rocket when she gets to experience the planetarium for the first time, or the deep pit of anxiety when she breaks a toy bound up with personal meaning. The slow buildup of sensory and emotional overwhelm are both portrayed with not only technical accuracy but a style that places the reader in the moment with Nova, seeing and experiencing life from her perspective. And her perspective is never cheapened or flattened.
Nicole Panteleakos drew on great depths of experience with autism to write Nova’s character; diagnosed with autism and OCD herself as an adult, she also worked for years teaching creative writing and communication to autistic kids with limited speech and volunteered with autistic children in various programs and through foster respite care. Additionally, she had multiple autistic tweens and adults read through her drafts to help ensure Nova wouldn’t fall into stereotypes or caricatures. Her exposure to the breadth of the autism spectrum as well as her personal insider’s understanding of it enabled her, I believe, to craft a genuinely human autistic protagonist, unlike any I have encountered from a neurotypical author.
Panteleakos’s Author’s Note at the end of the book also deserves a special mention, being everything I always loved about author’s notes when I was in the target age group for this book (and still love today, to be honest). However, you’ll have to read the story first and discover this on your own 🙂 But with a character like Nova, and with all she gets to experience of unconditional love and belonging as she works to process and overcome not her disability but the challenges of her circumstances, there are countless other reasons to read this book, and no reasons to wait.
As far as I know this is Panteleakos’s first book – I hope she writes more in the future! She does have an excellent article about writing Planet Earth Is Blue that touches on some of the experiences that influenced the book as well as the value of autistic representation in fiction.
In the midst of all the covid-19 craziness, life goes on. It’s still Lent, for about another week, and there will still be Easter, and it’s still Autism Acceptance Month now that it’s April! This year, my focus will be on books of fiction written by and/or containing autistic main characters.
Why fiction? There are a lot of good memoirs written by autistic individuals, and non-fiction books addressing autism, but fiction in particular taps into the imagination and vision of the reader. It opens up new perspectives and potentials, allowing the reader to enter into new worlds, relationships, and experiences. So for the neurotypical reader, encountering autistic characters in fiction (assuming they are well-written!) can make autism understandable, relatable, and more human, which will then hopefully translate to the real world. For the autistic reader, those characters can give them people to identify with when they may be surrounded by neurotypical society in real life and in most books.
Another advantage of fiction is that it is more likely to be read by people who aren’t interested specifically in autism – at least not enough to seek out a non-fiction book on the topic – but who are looking for a good story to immerse themselves in. In this way, books with autistic characters can help bring awareness and acceptance of autism to a more mainstream audience.
It’s not so helpful, however, to read fiction with autistic characters if those characters are stereotyped, flat, or defined by their atypical behaviors rather than shown authentically as human beings with complex internal lives and emotional ranges. For that reason, fiction written by autistic authors is particularly valuable, as these authors tend to have more reliable insight into the processing and perspective of autistic characters than neurotypical authors have. It is possible for non-autistic authors to write autistic characters well, of course, and I think it’s important for fiction writers to try to write from a variety of perspectives, but in my experience autistic characters written by autistic authors are much more accurate to life and multi-dimensional.
For those reasons, most of the books I’ll be reviewing this month are #ownvoices autistic fiction – books with an autistic protagonist or important secondary character written by an autistic author – and the exceptions will fit into either one or the other of those categories. I’ve written three reviews already, I’ve read two more books that I need to write up, and I have 2-3 more in reserve – but if you have any suggestions of books you’ve loved or that sound interesting, please let me know! It was difficult to find books in this category and so I’d love to be able to put together a more comprehensive list by the end of the month.
I’m linking up with Kelly again this week – head over and check out the rest of the linkup!
Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me […]
Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination.
– Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
It’s easy to see evil as something distant, or something belonging to people “not like me;” it’s been especially easy, I think, in a politically polarized era to attempt to push our perception of evil off onto politicians or political enemies, the political and cultural “others”, instead of recognizing the sin that cuts through each and every individual heart. We ignore accusations of immorality against those whose ideology aligns with ours, or who benefit us in some way, while jumping at every hint of wrongdoing in those who disagree with us.
But a good novel will show us the hidden depths of goodness and humanity in even the people we dislike and disagree with, while exposing the foolishness and flaws within the people we most admire and who are most like us. By drawing us in emotionally through the story, it relaxes our defenses and allows new, unpleasant, or inconvenient truths to seep in. Our empathy for the characters can engender empathy for real people whom we may have overlooked, avoided, or misunderstood – and the realities that we see more deeply and completely by the light of imagination can spur us to resist the daily evil and pour out the daily labor of love in our own mundane lives.
In other words: let us go read great books so that our hearts and minds can grow in love and understanding – and maybe, as a result, evil need not win each hourly battle in our thoughts and interactions.
“In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.”