A Tenacity the World Doesn’t See

I recently read an article that gave valuable insight into why life for a person with high functioning autism (frequently still called Asperger’s Syndrome) is so challenging. It’s one of the best I’ve read to help us “neurotypical” people empathize with those on the spectrum. If you know a single person on the autism spectrum, please take a moment to read this (click hyperlink above). I forwarded it to several people that I especially wanted to read it, and I hope they did. If we can change the lens we view people with ASD through, our interactions with them can become more positive, and hopefully there will be less misconceptions on our part for their actions.

Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it’s easy to get frustrated with someone who gets upset by so many things that “shouldn’t” bother him. We think, It’s not that loud, it’s not that bright, I can’t even hear anything. It’s tempting to want to say, “Just do it.” Whatever “it” happens to be at the moment. Go there. Do that. Say this. But what me, and anyone else that loves a person on the spectrum, sometimes forget is how much tenacity, sheer will, and courage it takes to just get through a plain old day. Like so much of autism spectrum disorders, this tenacity is invisible. The world doesn’t see it, because the world doesn’t see what it takes for someone on the spectrum to cope with his or her challenges in the first place.

If you’ve read my previous blog post What I’ve Learned in the Asperger’s Trenches, you’ll know I have a son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in preschool. He’s almost 21 now, and even though it’s been a long and sometimes painful journey to get to this point, we still celebrate the milestones he reaches–even though some days each tiny step forward is followed by a big leap backwards. Life is tougher for him that I wish it was. But I wanted to write a post acknowledging exactly what it’s taken for him to get to where he is today.

I chose the word tenacity for the title of this blog because it represents one of my son’s character traits that has been a part of his personality for as long as I can remember. He actually has many of the same personality traits as terriers: intelligence, loyalty, bravery, and especially tenacity–an absolute unwillingness to give up on something he’s set his mind to do. But it’s the trait of tenacity that’s helped him persevere through the worst times.12743546_10207121592136251_7231589288252981407_n

This trait showed up at an early age in my son. His preschool teacher observed that he was very rule oriented and thrived on structure. She used this to set goals for him, and by God he was going to make that goal no matter what. It continued on into Boy Scouts. He joined a troop when we moved back to Georgia (from Germany) that had some boys who ostracized him, at one point even informing him that he couldn’t stay in their patrol. I’ll admit, I suggested he find another troop, but my son wasn’t having it. He called the scout master and asked if the other scouts could decide who stayed in patrols. When he heard the answer was no, he said, “Good. I’m staying in my patrol then.” He wasn’t going to let anyone keep him from his goal of becoming an Eagle Scout. Which he accomplished beautifully.

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Fritz and Zoey. Photo courtesy of Ms. Mechelle Lang.

When he started playing the saxophone, he was in one of the lowest “chairs” in his middle school band. This didn’t seem to bother him until the kid next to him started annoying him throughout the entire class. I made a comment that if he moved up to a higher chair, he wouldn’t sit next to that kid anymore. Once my son latched on to that concept, he started practicing the saxophone like his life depended on it. By the end of the year, he wasn’t only in the top chair he was awarded the Outstanding Woodwind Player in his band at the final concert. In high school he was nominated for the Governor’s Honors Program for music.

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Yamaha Alto Sax. Image from Wikipedia

When he started looking at colleges, his first choice was Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Known for extremely competitive acceptance rates and challenging course work, it was nevertheless where he set his sights on going. Not only did he get accepted, he was accepted “early action” which affirmed his decision to go there in the first place. But it hasn’t been easy, to say the least. At Georgia Tech, sheer tenacity has kept him hanging on through some of the most challenging years of his life. When he mentioned the possibility of transferring to a less rigorous school, my husband and I fully supported his decision to do so. But ultimately, he has stuck it out at Tech and will be a senior in August when the Fall semester begins. Seeing him walk across that stage to receive his diploma will be an absolutely overwhelming moment of emotions for me, representing a culmination of years of overcoming obstacles.

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Photo copyright: The Georgia Institute of Technology

If you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, I’d love to hear from you. We’re definitely all in this together. My best advice is to take each day at a time. Don’t look ahead too far into the future, but celebrate the small successes of today. I’d love to celebrate your child with you and cheer for him or her to reach every single goal.

 

Crossing the Cultural Divide

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For some reason, I’ve been reflecting on the three years my family spent living in Germany lately. Maybe it’s because the world seems so divided these days, or maybe because my kids are grown and I’m nostalgic for the family time we shared back then.

We took advantage of the wonderful opportunity to live overseas and traveled as much as our schedule and bank account allowed. In those travels, we met a great many people. People of different religions, races and cultural practices than us. Our kids played with other kids on playgrounds and swimming pools, even though they couldn’t understand a word of the other’s language. Verbal communication is important–we all know that. But a smile or an act of kindness transcends language barriers and reminds us that we are all sharing this planet together.

The older I get, the more I seek out friendships with people who come from different backgrounds than I do. It makes my life fuller and helps me view the world in a broader sense–and not merely from my own narrow cultural lens. It’s reflected in my writing as well. As I envision characters for my stories, they are much more diverse than they were a few years ago when I started writing.

I hope you have a change to share a smile with someone today, even if that someone speaks a different language. Like the proverb says, “All people smile in the same language.”

A Tiny Superhero with a Huge Heart

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Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (Marvel) takes down a much bigger bad guy! Copyright Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

I have always loved characters that surprise me. Especially if that character is a child that no one expects to do great things. This character is found in all of my favorite books by Roald Dahl–unloved, orphaned, tiny, impoverished–whatever the reason, the world at large has low expectations for the character. And then, our scrappy little kid goes on to prove the world was completely mistaken and we learn that he/she is truly amazing.

In my recently completed picture book manuscript, my main character is certainly not the kid anyone would expect to be a superhero and save his school from a robber. But that is exactly what he does. My character was born with a disability that required him to have a special tube placed in his neck to help him breathe. But don’t count him out just yet. He’s packing a hidden punch.

As a pediatric nurse, I’ve been awed and inspired countless times by the enormity of courage packed into tiny little bodies. Kids are my passion, and writing stories that show their powers (in ways the world doesn’t expect) is more fun than should be legal. I hope that one day this story will make it out into the world and you can share in the fun of watching my tiny little guy with the huge heart take down the bad guys. Until then, Google some videos of Baby Groot in action for a guaranteed smile!

What I Love about R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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Penguin Random House Books

I finished reading Wonder in March, but I can’t stop thinking about this book. I’ve recommended it to more people than I can keep track of. The ones who’ve read it get back to me and thank me for recommending it. The book is just that good. This book resonated with me for several reasons. First, I grew up in a family with a sister who had special needs. I also have a son with special needs. I’m a pediatric nurse who’s cared for children with the same kind of anomalies that the main character was born with. Finally, I taught elementary school for 4 years and high school for 1, and Ms. Palacio nails school dynamics beautifully.

If you haven’t read this wonderful book yet, here is a brief introduction: August Pullman has never been able to attend school due to his extensive medical needs. He was born with severe craniofacial anomalies, and has had many surgeries. At the opening of the story, his parents have decided to enroll him in a private school. Auggie is nervous about how the other kids are going to respond to him. The principal picks three kids that he thinks will help ease the transition for Auggie, but it doesn’t work out so well. (It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to give spoilers!) However, there is another student named Summer who befriends Auggie without prompting from anyone. Through the narrative, the reader becomes a part of the Pullman family as well as their extended family and friends.

  1. The story unfolds through multiple perspectives. Even though Auggie is an extremely observant kid, there is no way he could know the motivations and back story for every other character in the book. Palacio beautifully puts us inside the head of each character, and this is one of the reasons this book has such a huge heart. No one is a cliché, but a fully developed character with motivations guiding their behaviors.
  2. The book is written with humor. Even though I cried in many places, this book is not in the least bit depressing. The Pullman family relies on humor to get them through the tough times. I came to love this family so much. They made mistakes and they didn’t always agree. But they loved each other and it comes across so beautifully in the writing.
  3. The beautiful writing itself makes the book a pleasure to read. In the very beginning of the book, Auggie tells us, “the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.” He is perceptive and notices the way others react to him. He also shares at one point that if he had a magic lamp, he’d wish for an ordinary face. Being inside of Auggie’s head doesn’t feel like a pity party. But the frustration he feels that even his own family doesn’t seem to be able to allow him to be “normal” comes across beautifully. It’s gut wrenching, but at the same time it’s hopeful.
  4. Via’s experiences were the ones that resonated the strongest for me because this teenage character is able to put her family’s existence into words better than I’ve ever been able to. When it’s Via’s turn to tell the story, she compares her family to a solar system. “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun.” Wow.
  5. Another beautiful part of Wonder that was especially meaningful for me was the relationship between Via and her grandmother. In her early years, having her grandmother’s unconditional love and adoration helped to offset the dynamics of her nuclear family. My grandmother was exactly this for me. And just like Via, she died unexpectedly when I needed her support the most. Via’s grandmother shares a secret with her about why she feels the way she does. “I love Auggie very, very much,…but he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you.”
  6. This book is “real” in every since. Palacio doesn’t sugar coat anything. She allows Auggie to be resentful of “normal” kids at times. Via feels betrayed by her mom at times when she focuses so much attention on Auggie and his needs. The parents have arguments. Some kids are just plain mean, because let’s be honest, some kids just are. Perhaps the best part of the authenticity of Wonder is that is shows how acts of kindness that might seem small at the time, can have an enormous impact on someone who needed the kindness. In fact, this book started the Choose Kind movement through American schools.

To say that I recommend this book is an understatement. If you haven’t read it, you can go here for more information from the book’s publisher. If you have read it, please share your comments. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Dragon Con 2016

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I was fortunate enough to attend my first Dragon Con last weekend in Atlanta with my family. This was the 30th anniversary of the pop culture, fantasy, and sci-fi convention, and I was joined by more than 77,000 others on this adventure. According the the post- convention press release, “Fans came from around the world and all 50 states, with this year’s convention attracting people from as far away as Japan, New Zealand, and Fiji.” In other words, I was in good company.

What I knew about Dragon Con is that people engaged in cosplay–dressing up as their favorite characters from movies, comics, television programs, video games, and just about anything that reflects their interests. I knew this because I’ve assisted my young adult kids in making these costumes and/or purchasing items to make them look authentic. I vaguely knew that they held panels for people interested in writing because my daughter, who volunteered this year in media relations at the con, had told me about them last year.

What I didn’t know about Dragon Con could fill Lake Michigan. Here’s just a few facts that I found impressive.

  1. The con has it own awards/recognition program called Dragon Awards. These recognize the creators of science fiction and fantasy in books, comic books, games and filmed entertainment.
  2. The con raises money for charity. According to the press release, $98,000 was raised this year for its 2016 official charity, the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency, which helps put homeless individuals on a pathway to achieving a healthy independence.
  3. The con attracts famous actors, writers, producers, etc. There was some serious talent in that place. There are far too many to name, but a few of the individuals that I’ve watched in television during my lifetime were in attendance such as Alex Kingston, William Shatner, Gillian Anderson, and Jason Isaacs and Adam Baldwin. There was a pool of talent at the con that would appeal to people of all ages and interests.
  4. The sheer size of the con! I mentioned the numbers above, but nothing would prepare you for how many individuals (costumed or not) were crowded into a huge area of Atlanta. Event organizers added more than 215,000 square feet to the venues, including the AmericasMart Building 2. The con consumed meeting space in the Sheraton, Marriott Marquis, Westin, Hyatt and the AmericasMart buildings.
  5. The con is quite civic minded. In addition to the fundraising efforts, there was a blood drive held in which over 6,000 units of blood and blood products were donated to an Atlanta blood bank. Also, disability services were visible everywhere and provided assistance to individuals with special mobility/seating needs.
  6. The diversity of the people attracted by Dragon Con was one of my biggest surprises. There were people there who were less than half my age as well as people (almost!) twice my age. There were people there of every race, gender and socioeconomic level. Some costumes were Captain America shirts from Walmart and some looked professionally made to the cost of thousands. The attendees for the most part were gracious with posing for pictures, and seemingly unflustered by the long (and I mean long!) lines, wait times and sheer crowds you had to part to just move anywhere. I loved seeing families there with their kids, all in costume having a great time. 14317415_1242873745744756_2617542351912526429_n
  7. I’m saving the best for last. 🙂 I was stunned at the writing community that was in attendance. There were some terrific panels at the con on the writing craft as well as specific elements of publishing. Brandon Sanderson, who is probably best known for finishing Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, was on a panel that I attended. I ran into him outside of one of the hotels and he was warm and gracious in answering a question and then chatting for several minutes. The authors who attended seemed very willing to interact and share insights with attendees. I was impressed with the breadth of options of panels to attend that focused on writing.

    My takeaway from Dragon Con 2016 is that there is truly something for everyone there. If you’ve ever read or watched anything related to science fiction or fantasy, if you’ve ever watched superhero movies or read comics, if you enjoy art or especially if you like people watching–this is the place to be during Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. 14195279_1059995960781223_8651517751153972000_o

     

    Have you been to Dragon Con or think you might be interested? If so, I’d love to hear your comments! For more information on Dragon Con 2017, please visit the website www.dragoncon.org for more information. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Photo Credits: Sarah Maney

 

Picture Books that Get The Big Picture

As an author, a mom to a special needs son and a pediatric nurse, I am always on the lookout for books portray a realistic representation of the American demographic. We are not all “the same” and that is one of our country’s greatest strengths. One underrepresented group of kids that I’m particularly sensitive to are kids with ‘disabilities’ that make them look or act different from other kids. Here are some picture books for very young children that can begin to introduce characters with special needs in a positive light.

  1. Keeping Up With Roo by Sharlee GlennRoo cover

    I will admit that this book hits close to home. My older sister Mary Beth was always so excited to be an aunt. But each of her nieces and nephews, as they grew older, came to realize that she was different than other adults. This is what happens to the main character Gracie in this story when she starts school. When Gracie brings her friend Sarah home from school, she feels embarrassed about Roo’s behavior. Like all children who have a family member who is “different”, Gracie has to comes to to terms with her aunt’s differences and realize what is really important in life.

     

  2.  Susan Laughs by Jean Willis

    I love the fact that this picture book focuses on all of the things the main character images (1)Susan does that are exactly like every other kid in the world. It isn’t until the very last page of the book that the reader will discover that Susan is in a wheelchair. I took care of a beautiful, smart and sassy little girl who uses a wheelchair and I see her on every page. I highly recommend this book to parents of preschoolers. When you reach the end of the book, the illustration of Susan in her wheelchair provides the perfect teachable moment to discuss all of the similarities Susan has with your own child.

 

3. My Brother Sammy Is Special by Becky Edwards
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I love the way this book explores the complex sibling relationship that occurs when one of the sibling’s has special needs. Generally that sibling is parented differently, with a different set of rules and expectations. The author allows Sammy’s brother to express his resentment and frustration, but ultimately focuses on his love and concern for his brother. This book would be the perfect gift for any child with a special needs sibling.

4. Just Because by Rebecca Elliott

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What I love most about this book is that the younger brother Toby is too young to understand exactly why his big sister Clemmie can’t do the things that other kids can–but he doesn’t need to. In his innocent and accepting heart, he just loves her like she is. The author depicts the positive things these siblings can do together, even if it isn’t what most siblings can do. The writing is beautiful and the illustrations are enchanting. Children with siblings like Clemmie are going to be faced with many challenges as time goes on, but this book’s purpose isn’t to tackle the hard stuff. It’s to focus on the love and affection that is at the heart of the sibling relationship. And it does it beautifully.

5. A Friend Like Simon by Kate Gaynor51OijiofOVL._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_

This book doesn’t focus on the sibling relationship, but on the struggles kids on the autism spectrum have making friends at school. I love this book. I see so much of my own son in the character of Simon. This story is told from the perspective of a kid who is trying to be Simon’s friend at school. But it isn’t always easy. It takes more time and effort to get to know kids who are on the spectrum, but this book shows that it can often be well worth the effort. As a mom of a “Simon” myself, I appreciate the kids who make the effort.

6. The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

51j3FlqSA9LFor any parent of a quiet child that’s felt left out of the “popular group” at school, this book is a true find. The illustrations by Patrice Barton add to the impact of the words because Brian (the invisible boy) starts out gray and becomes more colorful as he begins to see himself as fitting in with someone–anyone. This book truly shows that it only takes ONE kind child to reach out to an “invisible kid” and make them feel a part of a class. Parents, I urge you to teach your children to be this one child. There are “Brians” out there in every classroom. I’ve taught elementary school, and I’ve witnessed the change one child can make.

 

This list is certainly not inclusive of all the excellent books out there. However, these 5 titles resonated with me in a special way. If you have other books to recommend, please comment and let me know about them. I’d love to hear from you!

**Please note that I am not the copyright holder for any of these books, and am using the cover images to aid in readers locating the books at their local stores or libraries. 

 

Saying Goodbye to My Sister

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My sister was older than me, so there’s never been a time in my life when she hasn’t been there. Until this past week. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on her life and I want to take a minute to share some insights about what it’s like to live with a disability that makes you feel marginalized and even invisible.

Mary Beth was born in 1964 two months ahead of schedule. There were no neonatal intensive care units back then, so they just tried to keep her warm. She survived, but it was obvious by the time she started school that she had residual effects of her premature birth. Over the years I have watched her be cheated, robbed, beaten and worse. Thankfully most people in the world aren’t completely horrible and wouldn’t dream of doing things like that to a person with a disability. But there are plenty of decent people out there who just “didn’t see her.” And those are the people who can truly make a difference in the life of someone like Mary Beth.

On this day of her memorial service, I want to ask you for a favor. When you come across a person like my sister, take an extra moment to talk to her. Ask her about her hobbies. Ask her what TV shows she watches or books she reads. Ask her what kind of music she likes to listen to. And when she answers, just listen. Lately I’ve been replaying my last encounters with my sister and grading myself on how much effort I put into including her in conversations. And I don’t always score very highly. I’ve been wondering what it would feel like to sit there and listen to people talk about their careers, travel, kids, and other adventures when you don’t have those things. I’m so thankful for those people who invested their time and energy into her life.

On thing we can likely all agree on is that the world needs more kindness these days. This is one easy way to start spreading it around to those who need it the most.

Mary Beth, you were loved by so many people. You will be missed!

Please don’t think discrimination doesn’t exist just because you don’t see it

In many ways, getting older is about as appealing as extensive dental work without Novocaine. However, there is one aspect of approaching fifty that I’m grateful for, and that is the increased realization that my view of the world is largely limited to my own experiences. I see the world through my personal lenses, and the world reacts to me by what it sees: forty-something, middle class, educated, white, etc. How do I change the narrow way in which I view the world? It’s actually pretty simple, and yet so many people refuse to do it. Just listen to the people who face discrimination every single day and allow yourself a glimpse into their lives. Why is this so hard for people? Because when we aren’t the object of discrimination, it’s easy not to see it as a problem. The knee-jerk reaction is to either get defensive, or else just deny the existence of the issue entirely.

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Old Navy (Photo from Twitter)

This morning, The Today Show had a segment on a Tweet from Old Navy that featured a beautiful family. Apparently there are some outraged Twitter users who are refusing to go into Old Navy stores again because they chose to feature this couple. I was honestly surprised that this image would cause any kind of uproar. But it illustrates the point that I made above. My husband and I are from the same racial background. I’m sure if we weren’t, or if one of our young adult children decided to marry someone of a different race, we would all be acutely aware of the fact that people living among us in 2016 still react this strongly to the issue on interracial marriage. Even though it still saddens me (because I just can’t understand how this family is hurting anyone in any way), at least seeing this blurb on TV educates me to what interracial families deal with.

Our son has Asperger’s, which causes him to feel set apart from society in many ways. Imagine him at the age of twelve (as if middle school isn’t hard enough) being told by his church pastor that he couldn’t participate in the confirmation class being offered because she thought, “he wasn’t ready.” There was another middle school aged child in the class, but he wasn’t allowed. We pleaded with the church pastor on two separate occasions to allow him to be a part of the class, explaining how excluded he felt. But this woman, with all of her lofty ideals about inclusion, didn’t see any problem. To her it was evidently completely acceptable to exclude him. As a parent, this was heartbreaking and we no longer attend this church. But until the world makes an effort to understand what it is like not to process sensory information normally, to be unable to determine a person’s meaning from a facial expression or their body language, this type of discrimination will keep going on.

Also within the past week, I read a blog by a mom whose son is in a wheelchair. It was heartbreaking to think of her little boy stuck in his chair watching the other kids run and play. Even though I’m a pediatric nurse and I’ve taken care of children in wheelchairs, I had never put myself in the position of one of these precious children or their parents. I found a blog with images of a playground in Australia that has the great swing featured in the image below. My favorite part was a sign mounted at the entrance that said, “Access for All.” Whether we have a child in our lives with this need or not, we should all be aware of the problem and support these types of play areas. One amazing little girl I’ve taken care of in the past was excluded from almost every preschool in the area because her “disability” made her a liability. Until she is old enough to enter the public school system, her parents are at the mercy of private programs and how far they will stretch themselves to give her a place to participate in a school environment.

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Sir James Mitchell Park in Perth, Australia

I’ll apologize in advance if this blog sounded preachy. It isn’t meant to be. But, I’d love to see everyone make a conscious effort to view life through the lens of others who are different than us. We’ve all heard that expression about walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins. It’s taken from a poem by Mary T. Lathrap. I’ll end this post with her words in the opening lines.

Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.

The Litmus Test

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I think anyone who has a disabled sibling understands the concept of the litmus test. It generally begins in elementary school when our classmates discover that our sibling is “different” than most kids. Which classmates pass the litmus test and become friends that we are willing to risk inviting over? The ones who don’t make fun of our sibling. We instinctively select friends who show acceptance to our sibling.

This continues well into adolescence when we are teenagers and enter the dating scene. We see someone we think is cute, everything seems to be going along great, and then BOOM…it happens. He or she makes a joke or a rude comment about our sibling, or even someone with similar issues. All the wind instantly leaves our sails as we realize that we can never bring this person around our family. Honestly, we are better off without them, but sometimes it is hard to realize that as a hormone riddled teen with a crush.

When it is time to pick a spouse, it becomes even more tricky. Not only does that potential life partner have to be kind to our sibling, he/she must be willing to buy into the fact that one day there will be some additional responsibilities placed upon us as a couple to care for this sibling once our parents are no longer able to do it. This takes a special kind of person. Someone who loves us enough to sincerely understand the concept of “for better or for worse” and really means it.

I recently thought about couples that I’ve known over the years where one of the pair has a disabled sibling. The siblings have conditions ranging from Down Syndrome, Autism, severe cerebral palsy, and other developmental and/or physical delays. Each of these people have married truly loving and supportive spouses that have the patience and kindness to support them in the difficult road that often has to be followed. We come with a good deal of emotional baggage when we’ve been raised in a home where our sibling’s needs often took precedence over our own.

I’m grateful to have found my husband who passed the litmus test with flying colors and continues to do so every day. Thankfully there are people out there who do. But for those of us who’ve grown up with a special needs sibling, we’ve unfortunately seen plenty of people through the years who fail the litmus test miserably.

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Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press

Creating Diversity that Doesn’t Feel Forced

I’ve been increasingly following and interacting with the author community on Twitter. It has been invaluable to me in terms of networking, and it’s also quite informative. One thing that I’ve learned is that agents are requesting to see more diverse books. In fact, there is a Twitter hashtag devoted to this topic aptly named #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It shouldn’t be only the literary agents that are seeking out books with main characters who aren’t white, straight, middle-class Americans. Readers need opportunities to get their hands on well written books with characters who live a different life than their own. The question is how to create these books effectively.

Thinking back to my own childhood, there were very few books with black characters. However, one of my favorite books from my early childhood featured three black sisters trying to save up for parasols. Looking at images from this book now, I see that some of the colloquial speech and the illustrator’s portrayal of the mother (drawn as a “Mammy” type) may have reinforced a negative stereotype. But for a book of its day (1941) written by a white author, it would be almost impossible not to find some minor fault with it using modern day standards to judge. The overwhelming takeaway from the book is that working together to reach a goal is possible with love and hard work. I think the overall message is genuine and positive. It would have been wonderful if my older elementary and teen years had provided me with more choices of reading material that included people of color.

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Rudyard Kipling did portray a young Indian character Mowgli in his Jungle Books. I was drawn to this character as a child because of his unusual circumstances–being raised in a jungle by wolves isn’t exactly your typical fare. But I don’t think I ever gave his skin color a moment’s thought. It was just a well told story set in an exotic location with plenty of adventure. There was nothing not to capture my interest. I would consider this book to be a well-crafted diverse book.

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I don’t recall any books with gay characters. Not one single book. If anyone else can think of one from the seventies, please comment. I do remember several books that had characters who were Jewish, and it always interested me because if a character went to a synagogue rather than a “church” it was something different from my own life. For the most part, I think most characters either didn’t mention religion at all, or went to a traditional Methodist or other mainstream protestant type of church.

Pretty much, as I review the parade of book characters from my childhood, I see only white faces: Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Beatrice and Ramona, The Pevensie siblings, and on and on. It’s pretty obvious that we need more diverse books. But in my honest opinion, readers will only connect with books that don’t feel forced or preachy. So in some ways, authors need to figure out a way to just tell a really good story with main characters who just happen to fall outside of the typical WASPY mold.

If The Cosby Show was a book, it would be a perfect fit for many young readers. I watched The Huxtables every week living life on TV as a normal American family–who just happened to be a black family. They never tried to be anything else. The art that filled the house, the classic jazz music they listened to, the books they read…everything reflected their culture with a sense of pride. It wasn’t missed on me as young person. One of the most beautiful scenes I recall from that era of television was when the family gathered to watch Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I would love to see a novel that read like an episode of that program.

In the same way, I watched the show “Will and Grace” as an adult and it was the first time that I’d ever been exposed to a character that “just happened” to be gay. Will’s sexual orientation wasn’t the focus of the show. It never forced me to question my beliefs or conceptions about what the life of a gay man living in a big city might be like. He was just Will, and as I came to care about his character, it didn’t matter if he was gay or straight. To me, that is diversity done right.

The next thing that comes to mind for me is, “Who should write these diverse books?” Is it acceptable, for instance for a white person to write a book with characters who are Indian, African, Haitian, Hispanic, or any non-white race? How could I, as a middle class white woman understand the plight of someone who was raised a different race? Interesting enough, I find myself in this situation right now. My current WIP that I’m writing for NaNoWriMo is about a Hispanic girl that is called upon to save her older sister’s life through bone marrow donation. Why did I make my main character Hispanic? Was I just trying to write a “diverse book” to grab the attention of an agent? In fact, the reason that my character has to be of this particular racial background is because Hispanic Americans are much less likely to find a successful match on the National Bone Marrow Registry than their white counterparts. Therefore, the options open to the character’s family would be quite limited. My hope is that readers will feel drawn to Espy, and her racial heritage will not feel contrived or forced.

This isn’t an easy topic to resolve. It will take a concerted effort on the part of authors, agents and publishers. But it goes beyond that. The publishing industry is a business and it is driven by revenue. So if the American public doesn’t purchase these books no amount of effort by authors will make a difference. Have you ever thought about the books you read? I challenge you to consider what makes a story appealing to you. Maybe branch out a bit and try something different. You will probably be surprised at how much can be learned from viewing life through the lens of someone quite different from you. But most of all, hopefully you will find out how many ways you are similar.