Search

Diana Renn: Writing ADHD Close to Home


NOTE: Diana is graciously offering a giveaway of her new book plus a nature journal to one lucky winner (US only). Enter on Twitter - Just follow us, follow Diana, then tweet the word "TURTLES" to @novelmindkidlit. Winner chosen in about a week.

 


The best book review I ever got was from my son, when he was ten. For a week, he’d quietly listened to me read my first complete draft of Trouble at Turtle Pond. After, he left a review on my iPad, which I’m sharing with his permission.


“Thanks mom for writing the best book ever!”


The accompanying picture shows my son as a robot, his trademark self-portrait at the time, and me, in a sideways hug. (My face also appears a bit sideways, but we won’t get into that).

His praise, and our subsequent conversation, told me he’d seen himself in the story, and that other kids might see themselves too.




It was the best feedback I could hope for. But it took me a while to get there.


I had first just wanted to tell a story about turtles, inspired by conservation work my son and I did together. I worked hard to find ways to fictionalize that, including making it a mystery about wildlife crime – which we did not experience ourselves. But I had also wanted to write about a boy who navigates the world, including the natural world, as a person with ADHD. This proved harder to fictionalize.


My decision to write about this topic meant writing a book close to home. ADHD and anxiety run in my family. They shape our daily lives, from the state of vigilance we maintain, to the Olympic-level efforts to prepare for seemingly ordinary events, to the energy spent processing those events, and big feelings along the way. They also offer gifts, like hyper-focus, creativity, empathy, and more. I wanted to tell a story that portrayed some real aspects of our family’s experiences. But could I do that while also protecting our privacy?


In the earliest chapters, Miles felt too close to my son. I shared those early chapters with him, and a conversation I overheard later stopped me cold.


“My mom’s writing a book,” he said to his friend.

“What’s it about?” the friend asked.

“All of my flaws.”


That was hard to hear. So hard that I set the book aside. For months.


Studies show people with ADHD receive proportionately more negative feedback than positive. That feedback can take many forms: from the more obvious teasing and bullying, to seemingly helpful corrections and criticism, to the less obvious but still felt dismissive gestures and facial expressions. My first attempt at writing this book was not only too close to my son, it was too focused on negatives, which my son had honed in on and claimed as his own.


The last thing I wanted this book to do was contribute to diminished self-esteem.


Yet as some time passed, it seemed vital to me that we have more books showing positive aspects of ADHD even as they acknowledged challenges. We needed more books helping to change perceptions, including the self-perceptions of ADHD kids. Books to boost self-esteem, to compensate for all those negative perceptions out there. That’s what I needed to write.

I needed to bring in more strengths. I needed to work even harder to fictionalize.


And I needed to have a conversation with my son about life and art – no small topic!


I explained that I wanted to write about someone he could relate to, but not actually him, in the way the mom in the book might share some of my traits but was also not me. I picked up one of his crafts, a car he’d made out of things in our recycling bin. “When we make art, we sometimes borrow things from our lives,” I observed. “Like this car. You took things I recognize, but you changed them. Now they’re part of something new.”


I also showed him my grandmother’s quilt, which she’d made from scraps of my outgrown childhood clothes. The quilt had parts of me, but was not me. I then tried to connect all this to what writers try to do.


Those connections seemed to resonate. With his blessing, I went back to the book. This time, though, I tried even harder to balance out the positive and the negative experiences, as well as the fictional and the real.


One approach I used was to add and subtract personality traits, like the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” Miles excels at video games, makes crafts out of recycled objects, loves to bike, and feels a spiritual connection to turtles. My son shares some of these traits, but not all. Miles is funny, but his jokes don’t always land right. He’s sociable, but anxiety can cause him to freeze. He loves animals, but sensory sensitivities complicate his experience of nature; he doesn’t love heat, bugs, mud, or the scratchy Backyard Rangers uniform his friend Pia asks him to wear. His spontaneity has caused trouble for him, and “what were you thinking?” is a constant refrain he hears from adults. Again, some of these challenges run close to our experience, but not all.


Then it occurred to me: Miles didn’t have to be the only character with ADHD. ADHD can be diagnosed at different ages. Or not at all. Interventions may be offered; families may choose to pursue all, some, or none. Other diagnoses may intersect with ADHD. Given these nuances, and how ADHD manifests differently in different people, a classroom or a neighborhood will almost certainly more than one neurodivergent child.


So I created a larger cast. Bringing in fresh characters, and looking more closely at the ones I had, let me redistribute traits I’d originally given to Miles. That strategy for fictionalizing, paradoxically, also felt more reflective of real life.


In the finished version of my novel, at least four characters are potentially neurodivergent. Miles has a diagnosis that is disclosed to the reader. We learn about some of the interventions he’s received (social skills classes, medication, a therapist). But his old friend Will, his gaming partner in crime, shares some qualities with Miles. In my mind, he’s someone who may have ADHD but has not been diagnosed. Their social challenges have led to misunderstandings, and even a falling out, which is something both boys have to work through.


Similarly, another boy on Miles’s street, Cooper, has, like Miles, a troublemaking reputation. But he’s a very different personality type. He also doesn’t have Miles’s anxiety or sensory sensitivities. And where Miles lacks physical confidence, Cooper has a surplus of it.


Miles’s new friend Pia appears fearless, talking to the public about turtles, knocking on doors, interviewing suspects. She’s focused on protecting the environment, and spends much of her time in a cardboard box ranger station, which attracts some teasing remarks from kids. Pia also struggles with anxiety. She won’t take swim lessons, which inhibits her ability to investigate at the pond. This leads to a moment of real connection between her and Miles when they realize they both have anxiety -- it just has different fuel.


In real life, my son is now fourteen. He no longer draws himself as a robot. He’s explored new mediums and subjects. I still see traces of his previous style, and of him, but many of the original pencil marks are erased, in the art he’s creating and the person he’s becoming.


Time and my efforts in revisions erased my pencil marks too. With every iteration, the characters in Trouble at Turtle Pond, including Miles, took on lives and personalities of their own.


Neurodivergent kids can find common ground. They are also individuals. Having a fuller cast of characters freed me up to represent ADHD on the page, letting my son feel seen yet disguised. I hope other young readers may see themselves in some of these characters too!



 


Diana Renn is the author of three YA mysteries: TOKYO HEIST, LATITUDE ZERO, and BLUE VOYAGE (all published by Viking / Penguin Random House). LATITUDE ZERO was a Junior Library Guild Selection, and BLUE VOYAGE was honored as a “Must Read” title by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her new middle grade novel, TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, released on April 5, 2022, from Fitzroy Books / Regal House. Diana's essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Publisher's Weekly, The Huffington Post, Pangyrus, WBUR's Cognoscenti, Mindful, Literary Mama, The Writer, Writer's Digest, YARN (Young Adult Review Network), and others. Diana lives outside of Boston with her husband and son, on a street they share with turtles. Visit her online at www.dianarennbooks.com.


NOTE: Diana is graciously offering a giveaway of her new book plus a nature journal to one lucky winner (US only). Enter on Twitter - Just follow us, follow Diana, then tweet the word "TURTLES" to @novelmindkidlit. Winner chosen in about a week.