A Boy Called Bat is a middle grade/chapter book about a third-grader who tries to convince his veterinarian mom to let him keep the baby skunk she brings home. I found this an intriguing novel, and so did my ten-year-old goddaughter Meadow, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum as a toddler (as was her twin brother). She chose to write a review of her own. With her (enthusiastic) permission, I’ve included it below. First, for my own thoughts.
On the opening page, the reader meets Bat and learns he does not like to eat leftovers, sliced cheese, or most yogurt flavors. Having grown up with an abundance of highly specific food-related issues myself, I was instantly able to relate. On the next pages, the author quickly introduces a number of Bat’s other “quirks” – oversensitive hearing, flapping his hands, and being particular about the way his possessions are organized. While these are definitely traits of many autism-spectrum people, I was afraid their inclusion might mean Bat was in danger of becoming an autism stereotype. They were introduced in close succession early on, which made me worry he might have been created using an internet “Your Child Might Have Autism If…” checklist. That aside, I related to Bat again shortly thereafter, when he wanted to call the police because his mother was a few minutes late. I’m more than three times his age and I still feel that way every time my mom fails to answer her cell phone. It was a wonderful touch, and shows that kids on the spectrum do worry about their loved ones, which often gets overlooked or denied entirely in the case of ASD characters in literature. Additionally, it veered Bat away from becoming that stereotype I worried about in the opening pages.
When Bat’s mom finally arrives and hasn’t even brought his vanilla yogurt like she was supposed to, Bat teeters on the edge of a meltdown. The author captured this well, juxtaposing the way he feels inside (relieved but anxious) and the way he appears from the outside (angry and unreasonable). The author does a decent job of this throughout the story – showing how Bat can appear to lack empathy or react to events in an inappropriate way, when on the inside the way he feels is entirely plausible and directly contrary to how he appears. This is all too accurate when living with autism. While many people wouldn’t recognize that their words or actions are being negatively perceived in the moment (or at all), Bat can always tell and simply chooses not to bother correcting anyone about what he really meant. This is realistic, though I worry that young neurotypical readers will not be able to grasp the nuance here and will think it is okay to treat autistic friends or family the way many of the people in Bat’s life treat him – with anger or frustration – when they’ve misunderstood him. I wish he had attempted to self-advocate, but that’s not the type of boy Bat is, so while I found it frustrating as a reader who has had similar experiences, it is definitely realistic. I hope that young ASD readers will be able to parse out that this bothers Bat and not feel that they, too, should quietly accept the judgment or criticism of others as if it’s deserved.
While Bat’s mom failed to bring home his yogurt, she did bring home something else: a baby skunk that needs hand-rearing. Bat falls for the skunk right away. Bat loves the skunk so much, in fact, that he is able to set aside his extreme aversion to deviation from his routine. He even lies about being sick to stay home with the skunk and to avoid going to his father’s for the weekend. The narrative says that lying is highly unusual for Bat. This bothered me because this trait is often used in television shows as an overdone plot device, which I did not want to see here. Lying is considered a cognitive milestone, one that was previously thought impossible for autistic people to reach – a detrimental belief as it supports the notion that autistic people are not capable of complex thoughts. However, and I apologize for the apparent contradiction, it is true that many autistic people have a tendency to be bluntly honest, sometimes inappropriately so, which is why, ultimately, I am torn about this characterization. I am glad Bat lied, as it showed how important the skunk is to him, but at the same time I wish lying hadn’t been presented as something unusual even though that would mean the moment wouldn’t pack the same narrative punch. This is not because hyper-honesty is unrealistic, but because it is overdone.
I enjoyed the infusion of humor, like when Bat, who dislikes chili, is told he might like it because it’s a new recipe, and his first thought is that he’ll only like it if the recipe doesn’t include any chili. This sliver of sarcasm added a lot to him as a character, and I wish there had been more of it.
Unfortunately, the secondary characters felt rather two-dimensional. His father seems to exist purely to show how Bat dislikes deviating from routine, while his sister is mostly only present to be unkind to him, and Bat’s classmates are not developed enough as individuals to round out the cast of characters. This gives the appearance that they exist to help showcase various elements of Bat’s autism, including one of the most compelling scenes in which Bat attempts to do something nice for his sister but upsets her instead. Had she been developed as a more three-dimensional and sympathetic character from the start, this moment would have packed an even greater impact, but instead it’s simply another way to show how misunderstood Bat always is.
The strongest element in the book is seeing how Bat feels, as opposed to how he is perceived, which could be beneficial both to those readers who know nothing about autism, and those who are autistic themselves. Even as an adult it is a struggle to navigate this gap, and it would have been great as a kid to see someone else with the same issue and how they handle it. I wish a little more time had been spent on some of his traits while others could have been dropped. For example, I loved how his food-related issues, like with chili and leftovers and liking the way gummy candies feel but not wanting to eat them, helped make him feel real, whereas his hypersensitive hearing and earmuffs felt a little unnatural in the way they were introduced and therefore unnecessary; they could have worked better if presented somewhat differently.
One of the most fun-to-read scenes was Bat’s wonderfully awkward exchange with classmate Israel outside a candy store, when Bat felt like he was supposed to be responding even though he hadn’t been asked a question. That was an uncomfortable but funny moment to which I could completely relate, and I feel kid readers could too – even those who aren’t autistic – because who hasn’t had a conversation in which nobody actually knows what to say? Like Bat’s reaction to the “new” chili, I wish there had been more of this.
There is a saying about ASD: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This is absolutely true, albeit perhaps a bit clichéd. The experiences of spectrumites are so vast and nuanced and different from one another that a character who rings true to one autistic person might not feel authentic at all to another person on the spectrum, which is what makes reviewing A Boy Called Bat difficult. I personally share many characteristics with Bat, and those I don’t, I can readily identify in other autistic people I know, including kids around his age. Overall, even though nothing stood out as incorrect and his character was believable, he was perhaps too perfectly so. It is difficult to put my finger on exactly why, but despite being endearing, he was not as engaging as he easily could have been. I also wish characters around him were more developed and multifaceted.
Despite these reservations and mixed feelings overall, I would recommend the book to kids who are interested in learning more about autism but aren’t old enough for middle grade books that focus on ASD characters. That said, I would also only use it as a jumping-off point, while being sure to introduce other autistic characters to those readers too, so they don’t see Bat as representative of all of those on the spectrum. As for potential readers who are autistic themselves, I am conflicted. On the one (probably flapping) hand, I think some will relate and recognize themselves in the pages in a way that doesn’t happen in other chapter books, which is a massive plus; on the other, I worry some readers will feel Bat has been reduced to a checklist of “signs.”
As with all things autism, though (and to steal another somewhat clichéd phrase): “Your mileage may vary.”
IIn fact, it did vary for my animal-adoring goddaughter, a fifth grader. Take it away, Meadow!
I think A Boy Called Bat was AMAZING. I liked how the author chose to write about an autistic child. I also like how he loves animals, just like me! He really gives me a bigger understanding of Bat and kids like Bat. I think most of the characters really understood Bat very well. I really enjoyed the story and Bat’s adventures.
If I changed something, I would add another kid like Bat. Also, a lot more animals his mom gets to take care of. Some traits that made Bat a realistic autistic character were that he had trouble speaking and staying on task. He also had sensitive hearing. And he didn’t like different types of food and didn’t like change!
I would want to share this book with other autistic kids if they wanted to understand themselves more. I would also tell the author, “Please make A Boy Called Bat book series or a sequel. I would really like it and so would my community.
Love, A Boy Called Bat’s Biggest Fan,