Posted in autism acceptance month, book review

autistic #ownvoices fiction: the boy who steals houses by c. g. drews

Title: The Boy Who Steals Houses
Author: C. G. Drews
Date of Publication: April 2019
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

So I have to admit that I have a not-so-secret love of angst, longing, and heartbreak in the books I read. Every time I read a story of someone searching for family, home, acceptance, love, etc., and especially of working through the challenges of trusting in those things when they show up, it hurts my heart in such a hopeful way. I remember back in high school telling my dad that I just wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere – like there was someplace where I could be completely exposed and still be completely accepted – and I think it must be a fairly common human desire because so many books touch on it. In The Boy Who Steals Houses, C. G. Drews beautifully describes both that longing and the thing itself: the desire to be loved unconditionally, and the shapes that unconditional love can take in very imperfect people and circumstances.

I can’t think of another book I’ve read that looks at autism from the outside (the main character, Sam is not expressly autistic – his brother Avery is) with such tenderness and acceptance. Sam gets frustrated with Avery and Avery gets frustrated with Sam, like any two siblings, but they love each other so fiercely, so intensely, with such mutual protectiveness. Sam tries to protect his big brother from a world that doesn’t accept or even care to understand his autism; Avery tries to protect Sam from his own anger and from the justice system. Avery stims; Avery gets overwhelmed; Avery has meltdowns and has to be rescued and pulls Sam in to the lowlife world he’s ended up in; and through it all Sam just loves and loves and loves him – and Avery loves him back. At the beginning of the book, since it’s told through Sam’s perspective, most of the narrative is showing Sam’s love and care for Avery; by the end of the book (letting the reader realize it along with Sam, I believe) the narrative shows also how Avery has always been there for Sam loving and caring for him as best he could, through all the bad decisions they’ve both made and all the bad things that have been done to them.

But Sam is really the heart of this book, with his anxieties and his desperate longing for home and family and acceptance and belonging and love. I was instantly drawn in to his story; I’ve read it twice already and will probably read it again since I can’t get him out of mind (and since Drews ended on what was essentially a cliffhanger!). To be seen and known and loved no matter what – that is the treasure Sam is searching for, and the book holds out hope that he may finally find it.

The only reason I’m not giving the book 5 stars is that the writing was a bit over-dramatic at times. Sometimes the stylistic effects really contributed to feeling the characters’ emotions; other times they seemed over the top (but that may just be due to my own intense discomfort at overtly expressed emotion). Oh, and the ending 🙂 If only a sequel were forthcoming!

C. G. Drews has written one other book, A Thousand Perfect Notes, which I have not read (I’m still too caught up in the lives of these characters to move on!). She just posted a Q&A post celebrating the one-year anniversary of The Boy Who Steals Houses that is great in itself and also links to an article she wrote about writing #ownvoices fiction and autistic representation in fiction specifically, which I found to be quite good.

Posted in autism acceptance month, book review

autistic #ownvoices fiction: planet earth is blue by nicole panteleakos

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.

Posted in autism acceptance month, sqt

{sqt} – autistic #ownvoices 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!