13 August 2009

The Spectrum of Autism Fiction

On the School Library Journal website, novelist Suzanne Crowley wrote about recent children's books on autism and the related spectrum of conditions. Is it fair to consider that the “current cool disability”?

Certainly there's been a spate of novels for young people touching on autism and Asperger syndrome in various ways: through the protagonist, or through a relative or friend. In addition to her own The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous, Crowley mentioned:

And she could have added: As usual, small specialty presses were early to put out such titles:
  • Alexandra Eden's "The Bones and the Duchess" mysteries from Knoll Publishers, including To Oz and Back.
  • Kathy Hoopmann's "Asperger Adventures" series, starting with Blue Bottle Mystery, from the neurology publisher Jessica Kingsley. These books appear to cross fantasy genres: one tale of magical wish fulfillment, one of science fiction, and one of time travel.
All those novels were published in the last decade, when understanding and diagnoses of the autistic disorders became much more common. However, I suspect we can push back the advent of autism/Aspergers children's fiction, though the portrayals might not be so acute as they are now.

People with autism conditions used to be considered mentally retarded. I met some among the special-education classmates of my older brother, Al, who had Down syndrome. Only lately have the cognitive and behavioral aspects of the pervasive developmental disorders been considered separately.

Thus Rules, about a twelve-year-old girl with an autistic younger brother, has an antecedent in Betsy Byars's Summer of the Swans, which won the Newbery Medal in 1971. In that book, fourteen-year-old Sara has a younger brother Charlie, who is considered retarded. Today some people are instead interpreting the book as a depiction of a child with borderline autism.

COMING UP: Autism/Asperger’s in mysteries and fantasies.


John Tichenor said...

Hey, I keep getting drawn back to your site. Your breadth of knowledge is way breadthier than mine, and I'm having a lot of fun poking around...

You can add AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS to the list of books that deal with autism. The lead character, Moose, has a sister who is autistic, though as far as I can remember the word itself is never used (it's a Depression-era story). The book's Newbery Honor notwithstanding, I have to say I'm not a huge fan, mainly because the setting, Alcatraz, has very little to do with the main story. Yes, the sister's affliction is a metaphor — she's a prisoner of her own body — but apart from that thematic link the uniqueness of the island prison and its infamous inhabitants isn't used to any great effect. I mean, the family could live in a lighthouse in Maine, or on a ranch in Texas, for all the impact the setting has on the action.

On the other hand, I loved THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY — loved the story, the voice, even the book's design (it was, after all, the cover that first caught my eye) — and just recently I had been thinking it was time to reread it. I know nothing about the author and was not aware that she had died, but now I'm even more interested to read more of her work.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, I was hoping people might add to this list.

I'll insert Al Capone Does My Shirts up above. I don't think the autistic sister was part of the book's "high concept," so not many reviews might have mentioned her. The book caught enough fans that there's a sequel coming out soon.

Harriet said...

Another one I think you can insert is The October Child by Eleanor Spence (Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year 1977).

Although the disability is never labelled, I have assumed that he is autistic. It is key to the story, as it is all about how the birth of this child affects the family (the protagonist is the teenage brother).

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for adding another title to the list. It looks like Spence's October Child (a/k/a The Devil Hole) is hard to find in the US now.

Susan (Chicken Skpaghetti) said...

The main character in "Emma Jane Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree" seems to be a kid with Asperger's, although the author never refers to it as such.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that pointer! I added Tarshis's books to the list.

Elizabeth said...

For another older one, there's Ann M. Martin's INSIDE OUT. It's from the perspective of the older brother of an autistic four-year-old.

Martin is the creator of the Baby-Sitters Club series, but INSIDE OUT (which is the only one of her non-BSC work I've read) is quite a bit better than those books were.

J. L. Bell said...

Ooh, interesting. Inside Out was published in 1990, well before this spate of books about autism. It may have been one of the first mainstream books to tackle the subject by that name.

And it now appears to be out of print in the US.

kittens not kids said...

not really a children's book, but I had a conversation once with a professor about DAVID COPPERFIELD, and the character Mr. Dick. The professor with whom I was speaking suggested that Mr Dick is what we now know as autistic. I've wondered about this for a long time (Mr Dick in general, the "diagnosis" of autism in particular).

Interesting post, and I am bookmarking your blog (finally!)

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting thoughts about Mr. Dick. I don’t remember that character, and perhaps didn’t manage to read far enough to get to him. (I’ve had mixed luck with Dickens.)

I recall an analysis of Uriah Heep representing the Victorian model of an “onanist.” That’s a “medical” idea that we’ve discarded since Dickens’s time while autism/Asperger’s is a medical idea that we’ve developed. The two characters might therefore offer contrasting paths of interpretation.

On my history blog I’ve hypothesized that an eighteenth-century scholar named Alexander Cruden had Asperger’s. I’ve also read a study of another Scottish gentleman from the same period who was thought to be deaf and insane, but who the author suggests was autistic.

I suspect people will find more examples as we look at the past with new eyes, and the same will apply to past literature.

Carol H Rasco said...

Thank you for sharing this posting through Carnival or I would have missed it given an extended period away in August. I am very much interested in autism given a child with whom I worked in graduate school years ago. You have listed as well as some making comments books I was unaware related to this field of autism. Very informative posting!

Libby Urner said...

Another book I'd add to the list is Madeline L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time." Though Charles Wallace's differences are never given a name, everything about him strongly suggests a highly intelligent Asperger's kid, who allows himself to be thought of as "retarded" outside the family because it's far easier than having to explain who he really is.

J. L. Bell said...

I discuss A Wrinkle in Time in this posting. I don’t think of it as a book inspired by autism because the condition wasn’t well recognized when L’Engle wrote.