A Novel Mind's Merriam Saunders and Jenn Bailey first connected through Vermont College Of Fine Arts' MFA program. Both authors had 2019 picture book releases starring 'differently brained' children. We hope you enjoy their conversation.
Q: Can you tell us how the very first idea for Henry’s story came to you?
A: Stories like this one always come from perceived need, don’t they? My middle son was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he started third grade. We had just moved from the Washington D.C. area to the suburbs of Kansas City. We knew Harris was quirky, but the move away from all things familiar aggravated everything. There was some culture shock, too. We’d never lived in the Midwest and had no friends or family anywhere close.
The Blue Valley school system was integral in helping us discover the diagnosis and they offered great support. The parents in the area, not so much. That was a bit surprising. And the children at the school? Well, they are kids, aren’t they? And I felt it was a shame that these people were missing out on knowing a very interesting and funny kid.
Once we settled in a bit and I found my writing community, I would fuss at my writing friends that someone should write a book about a child on the autism spectrum trying his best to fit in. How this child, just like any other, would like to have a friend. I finally realized that person needed to be me.
How did you determine the tone and style for your writing of this particular story? Did you experiment with different story telling or did it present itself in this way from the beginning?
I knew right away I wanted it to be a picture book. I wanted to share this character with children while these children were still young, when they were starting their school experience. Starting school is a time of great revelation, when you meet all these other kids and realize everyone isn’t like you. It’s a time when we can open hearts and minds and grow a habit of acceptance.
I also knew I wanted this story to be from the point of view of the child on the spectrum. I got pushback. I was told to make it from the friend’s point of view or the sibling’s point of view. I felt that would defeat the whole purpose of the book. Too often in books, in the world, a child with a disability or neurodiversity is looked at by others and explained by others. Guess what that does? It makes them Other.
It was very important to me that the wants and hopes of the character were recognizable to any child. It’s how those wants and hopes are pursued that might look a bit different.
If you had one take-away you hoped every child got from reading this story, what would that be?
That different doesn’t mean wrong. It just means different. And we don’t have to be afraid of different.
Q: Have you shared your book with schools and if so, what questions do they ask about the story? What do they ask about you as an author?
A: I have shared the story with a few schools. I hope to go to many more. I love doing author visits and meeting all the kids. The schools and the students have been great! I know I am the “novelty act” as my mom would say, and that because I show up the class doesn’t have to do spelling or math. But these classrooms are warm and generous, and I enjoy spending time there.
I don’t get as many questions about the book as I get children telling me how they relate to the story. They tell me about a time when they felt lonely or weren’t sure about a rule or how much they don’t like the big slide! It is lovely to hear how they are connecting to Henry and seeing themselves in parts of his story.
The questions they ask as an author are usually from my author presentation and most of them involve my many pets. I live with three cats and two dogs and of course I show pictures of them. I hear all about everybody’s pets. Or the pets they used to have. Or the ones their grandparents have. Or the pets they want to have. It is a shared experience that helps us feel connected and closer to each other.
I do make it a point to answer every question. I am well aware that there are students who may not feel comfortable raising their hand and speaking to me in front of everyone else. I let teachers know that they can send me a list of questions later and I will write my answers back to the class. Everyone can have a chance to ask me whatever they want in whichever way they are most comfortable.
Q: Have there been reactions from parents, teachers, or young readers that you can share with us?
A: I’ve received some wonderful notes and there have been tags on social media. I remember one of the first I read was from a woman who said, “This is the first time I’ve seen my childhood self in a book…cue happy tears.” Happy tears in this writer too!
And I had a Second-Grade teacher send me an email. One of her students is on the spectrum. Her class read the book together on a day that particular student was absent. Before the teacher even began the book discussion, one of the kids said how much Henry reminded her of her classmate. It became an “Aha” moment among her students. The teacher wrote that since reading the story, there were new friendships being made and just a lot more patience and understanding.
More than I could hope for.
Q: It is never explicitly stated that Henry is autistic, but reviews seem to assume this diagnosis. Can you speak to this?
A: Sure. There were a number of reasons I never explicitly state if Henry is on the spectrum, although a lot of his behaviors point in the direction.
The first reason is because Henry wouldn’t define himself that way. His actions and reactions aren’t because he is autistic, they are because he is Henry. And this is his story from his point of view.
The second is because I wanted any child who is quiet, socially challenged, or anxious, to be able to see themselves in this story. This is not a story about autism. It is a story about finding a friend. And about how the social norms aren’t that normal for some of us.
My third reason was because labeling things lets us put them in a neat little box and place them on the shelf and disregard them. We get lazy when things are labeled, especially when we label people. We don’t have to pay attention or work to empathize because they’re already figured out and sorted. I wanted readers to come to their own conclusions about Henry. I wanted them to meet him, not a diagnosis. Show don’t tell. Oldest writing advice out there.
Q: Did you have to do any special research to write this story?
Yes. I have a child on the autism spectrum, and another with social anxiety. I read books of all types (fiction and nonfiction) and I paid attention – not just to my children but to the children they interacted with. I asked questions and I listened. I listened a lot. I did not make assumptions. I also knew that I was writing only one child’s story.
It must have been so exciting to learn A Friend for Henry was an ALA 2020 Young Children Schneider Family Honor book. How did you learn that news and how did that feel?
It was very exciting. I received a phone call the day before the awards were announced. Well…I received a voicemail. I was driving my family from Maine to Rhode Island and didn’t answer my phone. When we stopped for gas, I checked my voicemail. There was a call from the ALA awards committee. They wanted me to call them back and I very shakily did. I think the whole Schneider Family award committee was on the phone when they told me the news. It was just amazing! Wonderfull! I totally freaked out in the I-95 Kennebunk service plaza. Did a bit of a dance. It was so validating the HENRY was making an impact.
Then I made everybody watch the award announcements live. But we usually do that anyway. It is sad that the ALA ceremony is cancelled this June. I was looking forward to meeting all the other winners. But my gosh, I totally understand why! Let’s stay well and keep everyone else well. Hopefully we can meet at another time.
Q: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?
A: Just that I am grateful for the interest in my work. This is a true story of my heart and I am awed and elated that it is finding resonance with a wide array of people. Thank you for the great questions and for letting me share this journey with you and your readers.
A Novel Mind congratulates Merriam Saunders on yesterday's release of My Wandering Dreaming Mind, the companion to her first picture book My Whirling Twirling Motor.
“The positive scaffold provides a hopeful launch pad for progress…. This fills a needed bibliotherapy niche for families, therapists, and school counselors…. A positive spin for all those who struggle with executive function and those who love them.” —Kirkus Reviews
Jenn Bailey is an award-winning author. Her debut picture book, A Friend for Henry, is the ALA National Schneider Family Honor Book award winner (2020) and the KAC Children’s Book of the Year (2019). Jenn has been a professional editor and writer for the last 10 years and has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her B.S. in Film/Screenwriting from Boston University. Jenn received the Candlewick Picture Book award for Plink! in 2016 and the Flying Pig Humor Award for her novel, Once, in 2017.