Reviewed by Jess Creaden
I had the opportunity to interview Ivelisse Housman, author of the YA fantasy UNSEELIE, this month about her book, her journey, and what's next for her and the duology. One of the most fascinating parts of this series is how Ivelisse manages to provide authentic autistic (and Latinx!) representation, without ever using the word "autism" on the page, and I was so excited to talk with her about how she managed to do that so beautifully.
"Iselia 'Seelie' Graygrove looks just like her twin, Isolde ... but as an autistic changeling left in the human world by the fae as an infant, she has always known she is different. Seelie's unpredictable magic makes it hard for her to fit in - - and draws her and Isolde into the hunt for a fabled treasure. In a heist gone wrong, the sisters make some unexpected allies and find themselves unraveling a mystery that has its roots in the history of humans and fae alike.
Both sisters soon discover that the secrets of the faeries may be more valuable than any pile of gold and jewels. But can Seelie harness her magic in time to protect her sister and herself?"
Jess: UNSEELIE presents a world where changelings are a known (if not normal) phenomenon, and the changelings are recognizable by their eyes and their magic. Iselia learns that what's believed about changelings isn't the whole story in a manner that makes me curious about the connection between her autism and her changeling status.
Knowing that you set out to upend the historical myth that autistic people were changelings --fairy-swapped babies -- could you share some of your intentions with her character? Would other changelings in her world also be autistic, or is that unique to Iselia?
Ivelisse: I approached this story with the intention to take the changeling myth, turn it upside down, and reclaim it—all through the lens of a fantasy world. I didn’t realize how limited I would be by the first-person perspective! There’s so much of this world that I know, but Seelie doesn’t, and how do I express that to the reader? All that to say, changelings in this world are autistic people, and vice versa.
Obviously, one book can’t represent all autistic people. With that in mind, I chose to draw mostly from my own life when deciding what traits to give Seelie. She and I have very different personalities, but similar expressions. Due to the limits of the story (it mostly takes place with the main cast isolated in the middle of nowhere), I haven’t had the chance to introduce her to other changelings yet, but I’m still trying to figure out how to work that into the sequel! I’ve given a lot of thought to how nonspeaking or higher support needs changelings would operate in this world, beyond the limited scope of Seelie’s (and my!) point of view.
Jess: The fairies in UNSEELIE are framed as antagonists -- dangerous, powerful, and manipulative -- so that even Iselia feels unsafe with them, despite her inherent connection to them. Throughout the story, she has to ally with them, or overcome them, alongside embracing the power she shares with them. I'd love to hear your thoughts about those choices: are there parallels between the fairy danger and our own world that UNSEELIE is subtly unveiling?
Ivelisse: Faeries in the world of UNSEELIE are frightening and often sinister. However, most of them aren’t evil. I tried to portray them as a force of nature—they don’t have human morals, because they’re not human. Some are more evil than others, but it’s in their nature to be self-serving and look down on humans. Seelie’s magic connects her to the faeries, but she’s too human to see the world as they do. This is where the metaphor veers more into fantasy than representing autism, but I think the struggle of how to be compassionate to a world that isn’t always compassionate to you is something lots of us can relate to.
Jess: Can you share some highlights from your writing journey? Was this your first book subbed to publishers? Did you always plan to write autistic characters? Share whatever you want to; my interest is in what the reception has been like for your work, from critique partners to editors-- like what challenges you overcame or lessons you learned.
Ivelisse: Querying UNSEELIE, my first book with an autistic protagonist, was an absolutely miserable experience. I went over six months with no responses from agents, even on solicited queries. It was so frustrating, because I kept seeing agents requesting disabled and neurodivergent voices, but for some reason, they just weren’t interested in my story.
Once I did sign with my amazing agent, Victoria Marini, the submission process went much more smoothly. I have been lucky to find an agent and editors at Inkyard Press who really understood what I was trying to do with the book and pushed me to make it better, while still respecting my voice.
Without getting into too many details, I think the publishing industry needs to understand that if they want diverse stories, they need to embrace diverse methods of storytelling.
Jess: One thing about UNSEELIE that's so special to me is its audiobook narration. The narrator's voice is so dynamic and emotional, something that's rarely true for autistic coded characters, and almost never seen for them in young adult. What can you tell us about that process -- how involved were you able to be in choosing the narrator, and were there specific things your team looked for? Anything you feel comfortable sharing about the audiobook process would be very interesting!
Ivelisse: My publisher sent me a list of five voice actors to choose a narrator. Their options were all amazing—I especially appreciated that they selected all Latine actors to add a layer of authenticity to Seelie’s voice. However, it was Elena Rey’s soulful and youthful performances that stood out to me among the rest. I gave some notes on each major character, and they totally delivered. I’m in love with how the audiobook turned out!
Jess: What has it been like for you since launching UNSEELIE? Have you had any special moments with readers or unexpected surprises in how you feel or work?
Ivelisse: Publishing a book has been a lifelong dream come true, but it would be disingenuous of me to ignore the struggles I’ve faced. Sometimes people seem to believe that “successful” autistic people aren’t truly disabled, and it’s important to share about the full range of experiences. The past several months, I have been in pretty severe burnout, causing constant fatigue, struggles to complete daily tasks, and regular meltdowns.
Despite this, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. Hearing from autistic readers that they felt represented by UNSEELIE in a way they’d never been before, and from allistic readers that reading the book helped them understand an autistic perspective, means the world to me. As an artist, it’s also incredibly satisfying that readers have enjoyed the book as a whole, for the world-building and the characters and the magic.
Jess: For the next book -- I cannot wait!! -- what are you most excited to explore further in Seelie's character and world? Can you share a little about what we can look forward to in it?
Ivelisse: I’m so excited to be able to share more about the second book in the series very soon! For now, I can promise more of the faerie realms, more dragons, and more romance. Isolde also plays a slightly more prominent role, which is probably what I’m most excited for…
Jess: Is there anything else you'd like to share or talk about?
Ivelisse: I feel so lucky that I got to write a book with a main character who is clearly labeled as autistic, but not everyone is able to get the diagnoses they need. By the time I was diagnosed at fifteen, masking and struggling to fit in had changed my whole personality. Even though I didn’t have academic accommodations, I remember vividly every teacher who made space for me in their classrooms, who found projects to keep my attention, who understood when I shut down or was too stressed to work in a group. I hope that Seelie’s story inspires readers to be more understanding of people whose brains work differently, whether they have an official diagnosis or not.
For more information about Ivelisse Housman and the UNSEELIE duology, here are some links to other interviews and book reviews. The second book in the duology promises to explore even more neurodiverse traits!
Jess Creaden writes science fiction and fantasy for children and adults from an artistic paradise outside Atlanta, Georgia, that's disguised as a normal house. Some of their special interests include songwriting, rock hunting, UFO/UAPs, Tarot, and all things Bioware. Their most recent work is MEMPHIS AND THE SHADES, a middle grade contemporary fantasy about a family band of neuro- divergent orphans with world-changing magical powers.