Hi guys! I am really excited to share with y’all this month’s LILbooKtalk about “Neurodiversity in Children and Children’s Literature” with Sally J. Pla and Monica Tesler, two amazing people and highly talented authors. I am such a huge fan of Monica’s Bounders series, which has a very special place in my heart, and I am looking forward to reading Sally’s Stanley Will Probably Be Just Fine one day. A common thing that unites both Sally’s and Monica’s books is that they feature main characters that are neurodivergent, which means that their brains operate outside of the norm. I am very glad to have both of them here to talk about neurodiversity in children and in children’s literature. I hope you enjoy!
About Stanley Will Probably Be Just Fine
This novel features comic trivia, a safety superhero, and a super-cool scavenger hunt all over downtown San Diego, as our young hero Stanley Fortinbras grapples with his anxiety—and learns what, exactly, it means to be brave.
Nobody knows comics trivia like Stanley knows comics trivia.
It’s what he takes comfort in when the world around him gets to be too much. And after he faints during a safety assembly, Stanley takes his love of comics up a level by inventing his own imaginary superhero, named John Lockdown, to help him through.
Help is what he needs, because Stanley’s entered Trivia Quest—a giant comics-trivia treasure hunt—to prove he can tackle his worries, score VIP passes to Comic Fest, and win back his ex-best friend. Partnered with his fearless new neighbor Liberty, Stanley faces his most epic, overwhelming, challenging day ever.
What would John Lockdown do?
Stanley’s about to find out.
About Earth Force Rising
Bounders have always known they were different, but they never suspected they were the key to saving Earth.
Jasper Adams is excited to join the Earth Force military agency as part of its first class of Bounders, a team of kids training to be elite astronauts. He can’t wait to connect with others like him and learn to pilot spaceships that can travel across the galaxy in an instant.
But when Jasper arrives at the space station, nothing is as it seems. Security is sky-high, and Jasper and his new friends soon realize that Earth Force has been keeping secrets—one of the biggest being a powerful, highly-classified technology that allows the Bounders to teleport through space without a ship. Only Bounders can use this tech, which leads Jasper to a sinister truth—humanity is facing a threat greater than any they’ve ever known, and Bounders are the ones standing between their planet and destruction.
Will Jasper and his friends rebel against Earth Force for hiding the truth or fulfill their duty and fight for their planet? The fate of Earth may rest on their choice.
(Questions are in bold)
Kester: The first author we have today is the awesome Sally J. Pla, award-winning author of The Someday Birds, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and Benji, the Bad Day, and Me. Would you like to tell us a few things about you and your novels?
Sally: Hi you guys! I suppose you could say that my mission in a sense is to populate children’s literature with as many characters as I can whose brains just operate a little bit differently than the norm. This is my mission because I am from a neurodivergent family and MY brain operates just a bit differently. Rates of autism these days are one in 59 kids, and with other types of neurodivergence such as ADD, ADHD, etc., there are so many kids out there who need heroes and characters that reflect their reality.
Kester: I definitely agree!! I’m very glad to have you here with us today, Sally, to help you on your mission! Alongside Sally is the amazing Monica Tesler, author of the MG sci-fi Bounders series, which is personally my favorite series of all-time. I had the opportunity to meet her in person at the SE-YA Book Fest! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your books?
Monica: Thanks, Kester, for inviting us to chat with you today. You know how excited I am that you’re a fan of the Bounders series! Bounders is a science fiction adventure series for tweens and teens. The stories are about the first class of cadets at the EarthBound Academy, kids who always knew they were different but never suspected they held the key to saving Earth. Similar to what Sally mentioned, I set out to write the Bounders series with the hope that some kids who may not often see themselves in books would see themselves as heroes in these stories. I also come from a family with lots of brain difference, so it’s something that is very close to home.
Kester: I’m very glad to have you, too, Monica, with us today! And I’m very glad to have been able to read your amazing series! (I know I need to read Sally’s books, too!) The characters in the Bounders series, The Someday Birds, and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine are all neurodivergent. For those who may not be familiar with that term, would you mind explaining what neurodiversity is in your viewpoint? Why do you believe it is important to accept neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia?
Sally: I would start by defining terms. In accord with autism advocate Nick Walker’s terms—neurodiversity refers to the broad panoply of brain differences across the human spectrum. Neurodivergence refers to those (including myself) whose brains operate differently due to autism, ADD, ADHD, etc. Differently brained folks add to and enhance the human experience! We are all stars shining with different lights.
Monica: I was typing something… but Sally’s answer more eloquently captures the definition neurodiversity. I do tend to think of it quite broadly as anything not neurotypical. And like Sally mentioned, there is a broad spectrum when it comes to brains.
Sally: That is not to say that there are not certain challenges, and it is these challenges that my books hopefully will help to address. I think Monica must feel similarly. I was recently at a conference called “Love and Autism,” and I met the most amazing, talented, incredible young autistic writers and thinkers and artists and designers and surfers! It made me realize again how much people that society considers “potentially disabled” are actually incredible and full of abilities. They are different, not less. I want to keep writing stories featuring such characters so that we can expand our notion of what being human really means in all of its challenges and joys. Sorry, I am blabbing; I will stop now!
Monica: I love what you’re saying, Sally. I’m trying to figure out the format over here! I’ve written and deleted a dozen times! I’ll get faster, I promise!
Kester: It’s no problem, Sally and Monica! I love seeing the both of y’all talk, and I know that discussing in this format can be a bit difficult, so I get it.
Sally: Speech-to-text works pretty well on Twitter except it does not recognize the word “neurodiversity.”
Kester: I try speech-to-text but it fails me sometimes… That’s why I have to use my laptop which is what I’m typing on now, haha.
Monica: I’m typing on my laptop as well (in the car, moments after my son’s basketball game).
Sally: I am on my phone at my neighbor’s house. This morning we crushed 1,400 pounds of grapes for winemaking!
Monica: Sounds like a fun day, Sally!
Sally: It was super cool! I’d never done such a thing before! Here’s us making wine!
Kester: I actually went to Napa Valley for Fall Break since my family and I were in the Bay Area.
Sally: I’m in SoCal, but I’m up in Napa often. By the way, Monica, I read your first Bounders book and loved it!
Kester: I’m also very glad you loved Earth Force Rising, Sally! I loved it so much, too! (That’s probably an understatement.)
Monica: Thank you both so much! You’re making me blush!
Kester: You’re welcome!! I have books three and four on my Christmas wishlist and I have plans for a Bounders collection. (Seriously, it’s become my favorite series of all-time. I’m obsessed.)
Monica: I’ve often had autocorrect change Bounders to Bouncers, which could be a book for a very different audience!
Kester: We’ re in MG, not NA!
Monica: Definitely not NA!
Kester: What are your personal experiences with neurodiversity in you or your loved ones? What inspired you to write your own unique and memorable neurodivergent characters and heroes?
Monica: This is a question I’ve not spoken about too much because it involves the privacy of others in my family. So speaking generally, we have autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, affective disorders, sensory processing disorder, and addiction. I wrote the first Bounders book when my oldest son had just fallen in love with reading. I’d written a YA novel that didn’t go anywhere, so knowing how hard it was to get published, I decided to write something that at least he would be able to read (the YA had far too much mature content). And I wanted to write a book where he could see himself as a hero.
Kester: Sorry about that, Monica! I didn’t mean to be intrusive, and you’re free not to answer if you’d like.
Monica: No worries at all, Kester. It’s a question that really depends on the particular situation of an author as to how much they share. I respect everyone’s choices on that.
Kester: Thank you, Monica!
Sally: Kester and Monica, I had a difficult childhood back in the early 70s, and I have an autistic son. But it wasn’t until I was in the middle of writing my debut Middle Grade novel, The Someday Birds, that I began to suspect I may be on the spectrum myself. Charlie’s voice in that novel came through so clearly to me it was almost triggering. I began to suspect that I was writing Charlie, my main character, not as a heart gift to my son, as I thought, but as a way to give voice to my own childhood experience. I ended up going to get testing. I ended up with an autism diagnosis as a result of writing my first middle grade novel. It has changed my life for the better in so many amazing ways.
Kester: Thank you for sharing your story, Sally.
Monica: Also, I’ll add that my father has given me permission to mention that he had an experience very similar to Sally’s (which I had read about previously, Sally, and found very moving). Both through watching me go through challenges with my kids and through reading the Bounders books, he ended up suspecting and then learning that he has Asperger’s. It’s unlocked so many mysteries for him. It’s like so many pieces of a puzzle fell into place for him looking back over his life.
Sally: Exactly! I relate! It comes down to these windows and mirrors, doesn’t it? We need stories to give us windows into other lives, but also to give ourselves mirrors into our own selves–to see ourselves reflected back in stories and sometimes to find ourselves in stories.
Monica: Yes, truly. I’ve written about reading A Wrinkle In Time when I was young and identifying so strongly with Meg Murry–a bright, quirky girl who feels things very deeply. That was such a big moment in my life, the first time I identified with a character in a story. It helped that she was a heroine in an awesome sci-fi fantasy, of course. I wish for everyone to have that experience within the pages of a book. I just remembered I had written a nErDy Book Club blog post about identifying with Meg!
Sally: I adored that book and Meg, too.
Kester: Actually, this provides a great segue into my next question! Jasper, Mira, Cole, Marco, Lucy, Stanley, and Charlie go on many wild adventures in their respective stories–from road-tripping across the U.S. to fighting aliens on distant planets. How do you want young readers, especially those who share these differences and disabilities with the protagonists, to be impacted by their adventures? In what ways do your books help readers understand those who think differently?
Sally: My books are about inner and outer journeys. There is lots of adventure–from wild road trips across the country, too crazy comic trivia treasure hunts–but the real journey is an inner journey of trying to feel more at ease in the world. And that is what I hope for readers. That they will feel more at ease in the world and feel brave her with more courage to venture forth!
Monica: First, I hope readers find the Bounders books to be fun, immersive, scifi! Beyond that, there is definitely the theme that we should embrace others. Hopefully there are aspects of all these characters the anyone can identify with.
Kester: How can parents and educators help their children and students support those who deal with emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges? How can children and teens develop emotional intelligence towards their peers who are neurodivergent?
Sally: I think this question is asking about how to increase capacity for empathy and understanding. Books and stories can help kids slip inside the skin of different others, and open their minds to what it’s like to be different than they are. So can honest, respectful, open discussion. To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, anything/any feeling that’s mentionable, is manageable. So talking openly, and reading deeply, can both help open us to the different ways and experiences of being human.
Monica: That’s a big question, and one that definitely goes beyond my expertise as an author. From my own personal and family experience, some of my suggestions for parents and educators include framing things as strength and challenges, incorporating lots of sensory breaks, seeking outside/additional help when necessary, and embracing the fact that there is room and need for all sorts of minds.
Kester: All of your books feature characters that are easy to connect with and worlds (both realistic and fantastical) that are easy to get lost in. Could you tell us how you developed a love for escapist or realistic fiction? How has reading and writing helped you get through the struggles and challenges of reality?
Monica: I’m an escapist reader and writer. My favorite books (and films, and television shows) are fantasy and science fiction. I’ve always had a very vivid imagination and rich fantasy and dream life. As a kid, and maybe even more now as an adult, it’s a wonderful break from the real world to visit the world within the pages of a book. And I often find that my imagination stays in that world long after I finish. Both reading and writing are ways I keep my brain active, my creativity sparking, and my stress levels manageable.
Sally: My two MG novels, The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, are contemporary realism. My newest one–still under construction–is sci-fi, set in the near future, in a very different world. I think it doesn’t matter whether if a world is set in past, present, or fantasy future. It will be worthy of getting lost in, if it’s written well enough! (which is easier said than done!) And yes, I love living in that separate second reality of a work-in-progress. It is like living in two dimensions at once.
Kester: Before we end this LILbooKtalk, would you like to share some advice to young readers and writers?
Sally: You can learn so much through whatever it is you want to read. And it doesn’t matter what you want to read! The back of the cereal box, or an electronics manual, or Shakespeare, or Harry Potter, or whatever suits your fancy. Just the act of reading strengthens your mind in incredible ways! And it helps you to write and to articulate your own thoughts better, too! So my advice is to read, read, read — whatever you want to read. Just go for it!
Monica: If you’re interested in writing, particularly if you like genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy, fan fiction is a great way to start. You can make up stories within a fictional world that already exists–like Hogwarts, for example. That way, you already have an amazing world and characters and cool gadgets and magic to manipulate. All you have to do is focus on plot. It’s a great way to practice your writing. In fact, you don’t even have to write your stories down. You can tell them to a friend, act them out, or even just daydream about them. Imagination is your super power!
Kester: Thank you so much, Monica and Sally, for doing this LILbooKtalk with me today!! It is definitely my pleasure to host the both of y’all on my blog!
Sally: Thank you so much for the honor of including me! Monica, I am so glad to virtually meet you and I hope we can meet in real life someday! I feel as if we are writer sisters! Sending you both all my best. ❤
Monica: So nice to virtually meet you, Sally! I hope our paths cross soon! And thanks to Kester for hooking us all up online!
Kester: Aww, thank you, Monica!! I’m certainly glad to connect the both of y’all!
Sally J. Pla is the award-winning author of “The Someday Birds,” recipient of the 2018 Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award for its authentic portrayal of disability. It’s a NY Public Library Best Children’s Book of 2017, a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2017, a Goodreads Choice Nominee, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and Nerdies award winner. It has starred reviews and appears on several state awards lists.
Sally’s second novel, “Stanley Will Probably Be Fine,” is also a Junior Library Guild Selection with a starred review from Kirkus, which said, “add to the list of intelligent books about kids whose brains operate outside of the norm.”
Sally’s first picture book, “Benji, The Bad Day, & Me,” is now available from Lee & Low in September 2018.
Sally is an autism advocate who believes in kindness, respect, and the beauty of different brains. We are all stars shining with different lights!
About the Author
Monica Tesler is the author of the Bounders series, a middle grade science fiction adventure series about the first class of cadets at the EarthBound Academy for quantum space travel. The Heroes Return, the fourth title in the five book series, is due out in December. Monica lives outside of Boston with her family. For more information, you can visit her website, monicatesler.com.
“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it’s stupid.” — Albert Einstein
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