Jen Malia's kids reading the new book “Too Sticky!”
Jennifer Malia's new kids' book “Too Sticky!” tells the story of an autistic girl with sensory issues who has to overcome her fear of sticky hands to participate in a slime experiment at school. We talked with the author about her inspiration for the book and what she learned in the process of writing it.
What inspired you to write this book?
When editors at Albert Whitman read my essay “What a Muppet With Autism Means to My Family” for The New York Times, they asked me to write a children’s picture book with an autistic girl as the main character. I was thrilled to create Holly, who is a composite character based on both my own and my daughter’s experiences living with autism and sensory issues.
You were diagnosed with ASD later in life. How would you have reacted to a book like this when you were a kid?
As a child I was selectively mute, which means that I had trouble communicating with anyone outside of my close family circle. But medical professionals and my parents wrote off my difficulty with social interaction as simple shyness. In my generation, autism wasn’t normally diagnosed unless you had a severe form of it. This was the main reason that I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult. My daughter and I were diagnosed on the same day; she was 2 and I was 39. My son was diagnosed a year later.
I didn’t know I was autistic growing up, but I knew I was different. I would’ve loved to have books like "Too Sticky!" to read as a child. It might’ve helped me understand why I had trouble with sensory issues, like sticky hands, or communicating with classmates.
What do you think kids and teachers will gain from reading this book?
I hope that "Too Sticky!" will raise awareness and acceptance of autism, especially for autistic girls. With Holly, I wanted to create a main character for autistic kids who reflects their day-to-day experiences, both the strengths and challenges that they have living with autism and sensory issues. I also hope that their siblings, parents, classmates and teachers will have a better understanding of what it’s like to be autistic and experience the world from a different perspective.
What surprising things did you learn in the course of researching and writing this book?
My research for "Too Sticky!" began long before I knew I would write a children’s book. My daughter, who had a speech delay when she was 2 years old, was diagnosed with a language disorder. I knew it was more than that because of her intense meltdowns, so I spent a lot of time reading medical articles. I realized that she had repetitive behaviors, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests and sensory issues — all traits typical of kids on the autism spectrum.
Girls are often misdiagnosed or overlooked for an autism diagnosis. Only one girl is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for every four boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why are fictional books about ASD important to you?
I think it’s important for autistic kids, including my own, to see themselves in a book. I still have trouble finding children’s picture books with an autistic child as the main character. I wanted "Too Sticky!" to be not so much a book about autism as a book about a girl who happens to be autistic.
My main character, Holly, eats breakfast with her family. She loves science. She talks to her classmates at school. But she has challenges because of her autism and sensory issues. With "Too Sticky!" I wanted to show these challenges and how she deals with them from her point of view.
What other books about ASD do you recommend for kids?
I especially recommend books written by #ownvoices autistic authors.
For kids ages 4–8, I recommend Sally Pla’s “Benji, the Bad Day, and Me,” illustrated by Ken Min. I’m also looking forward to Steve Asbell’s “Flap Your Hands” (coming from Lee & Low Books in 2021).