Of the fourteen books my son Jake and I have collaborated on, HANNAH SHARPE CARTOON DETECTIVE has been the most challenging by far. The format – full color illustrations and graphic novel panels – comprised much more work for Jake who did all of the artwork, but the real effort was in the time we spent building an accurate portrait of a kid on the autism spectrum.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about children with disabilities. My first novel, TRU CONFESSIONS, focused on neurodivergent twins, and the main character in our MY LIFE series is a boy with a language-based learning delay who draws his vocabulary words in order to learn them. Throughout that ten-book series, Jake and I have spoken to thousands of students across the country about visual learning and neurodiversity, so it only made sense that the next topic we’d tackle would be to share our firsthand experience with being a neurodivergent family.
Jake was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum when he was four years old – twenty-five years ago. Many of the scenes in HANNAH SHARPE, CARTOON DETECTIVE come directly from Jake’s experience as someone on the spectrum; other scenes are completely fictionalized. Throughout Jake’s elementary and middle school years, many friends, classmates, teachers, and parents have asked us for ways to better support someone on the spectrum. We’ve shared therapies like social stories, Floortime, Sonrise, and other strategies that have helped Jake self-regulate. In our new book, we thought it would be helpful to include some of those modalities as part of the narrative so readers on or off the spectrum could familiarize themselves with these helpful tools.
The format of the novel is also tailor-made for students who need things broken down into smaller chunks in order to better process them. (Special needs families talk A LOT about processing!) The way Hannah tries to make sense of her world through drawing is typical of many children on the spectrum who process their surroundings visually. The result is a compendium of illustrations from crayon sketches to cowgirl pickles that make up Hannah’s inner and outer worlds.
The struggles Hannah has in the novel are also very real, but one thing I wanted to showcase is the fact that ALL kids struggle – not just those on the spectrum. I wanted to highlight how important it is for each and every child to know what kind of support they need and how to ask for it. My friends were both shocked and impressed when Jake was little and would come up to me and ask, “I’m having a hard time with this – can I have some support, please?” It seems so simple but asking for help when we need it shouldn’t be a skill that’s taught to just special-needs children – knowing and identifying obstacles is something all of us need to practice.
One of the things I’m most proud of in the book is how happy and full of life Hannah is. Jake and I know a lot of kids on the spectrum and most of them are imaginative, interesting, and super-creative. I spent a lot of time making sure I concentrated on Hannah’s strengths: her eye for detail, obsession with idioms, and her great memory. Jake worked diligently to infuse the illustrations with so much expression and color. The final book is a visual delight that truly represents the world he and I inhabit.
Like Nigel in Spinal Tap, the neurodivergent life Jake and I live is turned up to eleven with curveballs, but also with passion and humor. I think the world we’ve created for Hannah and her family fits that bill too.
Janet Tashjian is the author of the bestselling My Life series, illustrated by her son, Jake Tashjian, which includes My Life as a Book, My Life as a Cartoonist, My Life as a Gamer, and My Life as a Youtuber. Janet is also the author of the Einstein, The Class Hamster series, illustrated by Jake Tashjian, and the Sticker Girl series. Janet and Jake live in Los Angeles.