One in 45 American children have autism, but these children don’t often find characters like themselves in the books they read. Enter Seattle-based author Margaret Chiavetta, who recently published the first book in her five-part middle grade fantasy series, “The Alchemist’s Theorem.”
In “Sir Duffy’s Promise,” protagonist Mendel sets off on an adventure with master alchemist Sir Duffy to protect dangerous secrets and artifacts from their enemies. If they fail, their land will be cursed forever.
Mendel is different than your average middle grade protagonist; he exhibits some common traits of autism, including an affinity for rituals and difficulty connecting with new people. His character shows that although autism is an issue he grapples with, it neither defines him as a person nor affects his ability to embark on a heroic quest. Heroes, Mendel shows us, come in all forms.
To learn more about “The Alchemist’s Theorem” and the second book in the series, “The Alchemist’s Theorem: Mendel’s Inheritance” (due out summer 2017), we sat down with Chiavetta. She talks about Mendel, special needs and what’s ahead for “The Alchemist’s Theorem” (which is available online and at Seattle and King County public libraries).
How did you decide that Mendel’s character would have autism? Was it before or after you formed the plot?
After I wrote the first draft, I thought Mendel’s character was boring and two-dimensional. I had to make him a more interesting character, and I was struggling to figure out how to do that. My mother is the guardian of a nephew who’s on the [autism] spectrum, and he had just hit puberty. It struck me to have Mendel be on the spectrum, but I knew I couldn’t just base the character off my nephew. So, I read “The Reason I Jump,” a memoir written by a 13-year-old boy with autism. It helped me understand the internal struggles of individuals with autism. It informed me about how to write the character.
What traits of autism did you focus on when writing Mendel’s character?
Although it’s clear he has a problem, it’s not given a lot of emphasis, and the word “autism” isn’t directly used. Mendel has a problem getting to know people and communicating with them. For example, he always notices a person’s shoes when he meets them because he looks at their feet, not their faces.
He also struggles to keep this thoughts organized and his attention focused. He taps his nose before touching something new because that helps him ground his senses so he can process this new object. In one scene he forgets to do that, and his senses collapse. Kids who are on the spectrum often use fantasy to handle anxiety. Mendel uses his imagination to remember things and he writes in the air with his pointer finger.
What sort of research about autism did you conduct? Did you talk to individuals with autism or their family members?
My sister has a son who is on the spectrum. She’s a researcher and a sponge. She’s always talking to other parents of children [with autism]. She spoke with me about the research they’ve done and how they’ve applied it through different methods with their own kids.
What was it like incorporating autism into a fantasy novel?
Once I was done researching autism, I had a lot of freedom within the plot, and it took the pressure off, which is different from working with characters who exist within the constraints of our real world. I got to think of new freedoms and new constraints that would affect an autistic child who inhabits a fantasy world.
Why do you think it’s important to include characters who have special needs in middle grade books?
A new government survey found that 1 in 45 American children have autism. That’s a lot of kids who are looking for stories with characters they can relate to or identify with. The stories we read as kids help shape who we become. It’s important to put stories out there that allow all kids to see strong, positive characters [with special needs] as more than stereotypes.
That’s not to say that kids can’t love and relate to characters who aren’t exactly like them. I grew up loving the character Indiana Jones, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t be like him because I wasn’t a boy. So for me, it’s more about painting positive images of characters that are often stereotyped rather than replacing common kinds of characters.
5 more books to add to your reading list
By Shaila Abdullah
Age recommendation: 4 to 8
In this lovely picture book about a friendship between two young girls, 7-year-old Aanyah meets Suhana, who has cerebral palsy. Suhana can’t speak, walk or express her emotions in a “conventional” way, but Aanyah finds the perfect way for them to communicate — through art. The book also includes tips for parents of special needs children who are searching for ways to explain their child’s disability to other kids.
2. Rain Reign
By Ann M. Martin
Age recommendation: 9 to12
Rose is a high-functioning autistic girl who is enthralled by homonyms and prime numbers. She uses patterns and habits to feel in control of her everyday life. When Rose’s dad brings home a lost dog, she names it Rain — the dog was found outside in the rain and it’s also a homonym of the word “reign.” Rose adores the dog and is devastated when they find its true owners. Rain Reign offers an empathetic look at the struggles of a young girl who sees everything in black and white.
By Vince Vawter
Age recommendation: 10 and up
Set in the segregated South of the 1950s, Paperboy has a protagonist called “Little Man” who excels at baseball. Speaking is a completely different matter, though, because of his stutter, which is a constant source of shame and humiliation for him. When he takes over his best friend’s paper route for the summer, Little Man dreads the thought of interacting with customers. Although the new gig doesn’t always go smoothly, he forms new relationships, confronts his fears and builds his confidence.
By Aidan Chambers
Age recommendation: 14 and up
When Karl’s girlfriend, Fiorella, asks him to write her a series of letters about love, he panics. He hasn’t told Fiorella that he has dyslexia and he’s terrified that it will drive her away. Karl enlists the help of Fiorella’s favorite author to help him pen the letters and write down Karl’s thoughts. The author and Karl forge an unlikely friendship, and Karl slowly builds up the confidence to tell Fiorella about his learning disability.
By Lorna Schultz Nicholson
Age recommendation: 14 and up
Sixteen-year-old Harrison can recite every bone in the human skeletal system, but the idea of using a public bathroom terrifies him. He struggles to understand his classmates, and they can’t understand him either. When high school senior Anna is paired with Harrison in their school’s “Best Buddies” program, they form an unlikely bond. Although she doesn’t always know the best way to reach out to Harrison, Anna never gives up. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of its two main characters, and it offers insight into what it’s like to have Asperger’s and how to be a good friend and supporter to someone with the illness.