Trends in Autism Kidlit Marketing

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There has been a boom of books about autistic characters in the past years, which should be really exciting. Except there seems to be a formula to the way they’re being marketed, and sadly, it’s a problematic one. Plot summaries are designed to highlight the story conflict, the question the protagonist must answer, the obstacles they must overcome. It’s a great marketing tool, an elevator pitch, so you can see what the book is about—or at least, part of what the book is about. Marketing departments choose to focus a book in a certain way when they write these summaries, and summaries for kidlit featuring autism often seem to focus on the same things. Let’s look at some real summaries—edited only for length—to several autistic kidlit titles. See if you can spot the pattern.

Emma-Jean Lazarus is a lovable oddball who thinks she can use logic to solve the messy everyday problems of her seventh-grade peers. It’s easy: she just follows the example of her late father, a brilliant mathematician. Of course, the more Emma-Jean gets involved, the messier her own life gets. Suddenly she’s no longer the person standing on the outside of all social interactions. But perhaps that’s a good thing?
Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

Thirteen-year-old Merilee Monroe maintains a Very Ordered Existence, VOE for short. As long as she keeps up with her minute-by-minute daily schedule, she can avoid the internal trauma caused by change and spontaneity. So when two very distracting newcomers arrive in town, Merilee does her best to ignore them and stick to her plans. But can even a VOE have some room for friendship?
The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous by Suzanne Crowley

Rose Howard has OCD, Asperger’s syndrome, and an obsession with homonyms (even her name is a homonym). She gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. … Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Colin Fischer cannot stand to be touched. He does not like the color blue. He needs index cards to recognize facial expressions. … Colin Fischer is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and his story–as told by the screenwriters of X-Men: First Class and Thor–is perfect for readers who have graduated from Encyclopedia Brown and who are ready to consider the greatest mystery of all: what other people are thinking and feeling.
Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Kiara has Asperger’s syndrome, and it’s hard for her to make friends. … But being a true friend is more complicated than Mr. Internet could ever explain, and it might be just the thing that leads Kiara to find her own special power.
Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. … Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful.
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Eddy Thomas can read a college physics book but can’t read emotions on faces of his classmates. He can spend hours tinkering with inventions but can’t spend more than a few minutes in crowds. … Eddy invents a traffic signal using parts he has scavenged from discarded machines. When his invention fails, he needs to go outside his comfort zone and find another solution. Along the way, Eddy discovers new friends, who help him realize that his childhood “friend” Mitch is really just a bully. As he grows to better understand the world around him, Eddy gains courage to face the bully and moves beyond a purely mechanical definition of success.
The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman

There were plenty more I could’ve chosen from, but these particularly highlight the problem. Keep in mind I know nothing about these authors, if they are on the spectrum, what amount of research they’ve done, how autism is handled in the book itself. None of it. But do you see the trend?

In each of these summaries, the character’s innate personality traits, their autism, are listed as the flaws they need to fix. Their symptoms or quirks are given top billing, as though they’re what make the characters interesting. For some of these, it seems relevant to the plot, like if everything is black or white for Caitlin and she has to learn to see beyond that, even if it is stereotypical. But for others—how is Colin hating the color blue relevant to the character or plot?—those quirks are being listed as intriguing selling points, even though they tell us nothing about the character in the story’s context. Like we’re just our quirks, nothing more.

I don’t know if the main plot in each of these books is about the character having to overcome their autism—I suspect at least some of them are—but they are being marketed as such. In other words, marketers think this is the framework of story that will most draw in readers: presenting autism as the character arc and conflict of all of these books.

Some people do want to overcome their disabilities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when that’s all we see, especially coming from outside the disabled community itself, or it’s portrayed without nuance, it can be problematic. The message we receive is that the only way we will be accepted is by our assimilation. But our disabilities are things to be worked with, not bulldozed over, just like any other aspect of a person. There can be no self-acceptance in a narrative that relies on viewing our illnesses as inherently faulty. And when they are then marketed in this way, it reinforces the idea of disabled people as Other, rather than someone to be related to as another complete human being. These summaries set these characters apart not because they’re the protagonists but because of their differences as people, and how they can become less different.

To me, that’s the antithesis of what kidlit is about.



About Author

Jessica Corra

Jessica Corra is an American living in Canada with her Scottish husband, writer Simon C. Larter, and their tabby Rachmaninov (but you can call him Noodle). As a writer, she has contributed to the Dear Teen Me anthology (Zest Books, 2012) and Straying From the Path (Drollerie Press, 2009). Her work is represented by The Bradford Agency. She writes literary speculative and historical fiction for teens and adults.

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11 Comments

  1. An excellent point, Jessica, and one faced by many authors with diverse protagonists–the marketing makes it seem that the book is “all about” that one aspect. Years ago, African-American authors faced the same issues, as well as pressure to set their stories in the inner city and other stereotypical venues, or to write historical fiction only about slavery or the civil rights movement. It took years of struggle to change attitudes, and more work remains.

    In fact, authors have very little control over how their books are marketed, and the same factors that may interest a publisher in the book are likely going to pigeonhole it. I wrote Rogue after being officially diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult (because the diagnosis didn’t exist when I was growing up) and having a lot of questions answered with that diagnosis. I was really nervous about trying to get it published and really felt with the offer that I was selling my soul. But a historical novel that my agent was circulating at the time had gotten no interest, and my agent and I decided to pull it from the market and go with Rogue. At the time, there seemed to be a lot more interest in “a book about Asperger’s” than one set in Chile in 1989.

    Interestingly, the book set in Chile in 1989 did find a home with a smaller publisher and is coming out this June. And I’m very happy to be back writing historical fiction.

  2. Jessica –
    Thank you for summing up what has been a lurking concern for me. And I am grateful for Lyn’s response – I was thinking about how we once had only *really* awkward books about lesbian and gay teenagers, and now it is become one of the traits in a book without being the whole darn plot. It’s exciting to me that we are getting enough books with characters who are on the spectrum that we can demand more depth from publishers. I can’t begin to explain how excited I am to look at what makes these characters and plots work, or feel uncomfortable.

    But considering the books on your list that I have read, I agree with Lyn that much of the issue here is marketing.

    For example: Rose, in Rain Reign, does have specific challenges, but her disability is also what makes her a true heroine – she doesn’t overcome her autism, it gives her the answer to what she must do when faced with a decision that most of us might selfishly push aside. This may be also problematic, since it means that autism dictates her motivations, but her major problem (not autism) is out of her control.

    I’d like to recommend two books which feature main characters on the spectrum, but never mention their disabilities: ‘The Real Boy’ by Anne Ursu, and ‘The Greenglass House’.

    Thank you for your post.
    Terry

  3. It’s notable that some of the things we’re expected to overcome are actually coping skills. Logic can help us understand other people and respond to them in the way they expect; routines and safe spaces help us avoid meltdowns and burnout. Coping skills aren’t character flaws, they’re adaptive responses to challenges!

  4. I just had a memory of Temple Grandin speaking about kids with autism coming up to her and wanting to talk, not about their projects and interests, but about their autism. And while I totally get that they might want to talk to an adult who knows better what they were experiencing, Grandin commented that she wanted them to come up to her and talk about their passions, their interests, their projects.

    I think that would be my ideal – that the books that feature kids with autism show their passions and that the plot and conflict are not always integral to their disabilities.

  5. I haven’t looked at children’s books in some time- I am 36 and my involvement with children is limited to liking the FB posts of my cousins’ kids and the occasional child who loves something enough to join their parents at an otherwise-adult activity. I did read the YA book “Silence” by Michelle Sagara twice before my diagnosis of Aspergers, and several times after. It is among the books that my father, who also loves science fiction/fantasy, and I read not caring the age classification. The main character is neurotypical, the autistic person is another teen who has been in her circle of friends since grade school. His issues are dealt with as sometimes causing problems- she races to warn him that there will be a substitute teacher for one of his classes and in the process stops an attempt at bullying- a scene that is a minor event, and not something she expects him to learn to just deal with. More of the book is how he is one of the group, and how he is a vital part of the main character coping with some traumatic events, both through finding comfort in the rituals that were engrained for him and by the fact that he is one person she cannot use some social lie with. And he may be overwhelmed from time to time, but almost every character can be sent reeling by something

  6. If your character bears a suspicious resemblance to Sherlock Holmes/Sheldon Cooper et al, may need tweaking 😉 Tricky thing is, this basic idea of “Protagonist has personal issue, learns to deal with it a more adult way, doesn’t necessarily “overcome” said issue but they learn how to deal with it” is really common in YA/coming of age books. I definitely agree that it’s a problem though, if it’s emphasizing that the character needs to “overcome” their disability or downplay who they really are to fit in. Growing I got really sick of the “Nerdy Girl Who Gets a Makeover” type trope. I also think it would be interesting if the character figured out coping mechanisms on their own, while showing up the parents or therapists who tried to insist on doing it their way!

  7. Ah. I am glad someone points this out.. I have held a few books in my hands lately (or looked at reviews and summaries) online that have autistic kids as heros. I am looking for fiction for my son, who is an avid reader but I got the same impression. While the kids are the hero, protagonist or important characters – autism is not. Autism is the villain or the thing that holds them back. Now I am not even firmly in the “Asperger’s-is-a-gift!” camp, to be honest. My son struggles in school, with peers, with crowds.. But he is also extremely switched on when someone pushes educational content on him, yet again masked into a fun activity.. I think one of the greatest problems in autism parenting vs actually living the world autistic, is that parents tend to make everything about themselves. This fad of autism representation in kids books should be great, but as you point out, it is not as long as all autism is in these books, is the odds the hero has to overcome to be..like the others.
    My son has no actual friends. The kids in school reject his difference. He understands he will always be different. We are hoping some kids will eventually ‘overcome’ the normative restrictions of their world and meet him somewhere in the middle.. That’s the kind of book I am looking for. Not one that tells him exactly the same thing the teachers in school repeat to him every day. One that gives him hope he can be the hero of adventures WITH autism. Not inspite or only beyond it.. (He is only 9. I am confident he will make better friends once his peers have grown out of the stage where being like all the others is not only desired but an actual requirement…)

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  10. Rachel Samuels on

    The type of plot we need is one where the autistic MC learns how to navigate the world. I don’t think of my autism as something I need to overcome, at the same time, I thought that gaining clear speech from speech therapy, and better co-ordination from physical therapy were triumphs. We do need to be able to handle changes, because they happen.
    What we don’t need are books where triumph is merely becoming able to be part of a group, or look people in the eye.
    What I am trying to say is that there are aspect of the “normalizing” story that some autistic people, like myself, value, and some that we reject.

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