Hi Kate! Welcome back to A NOVEL MIND, and congratulations on the publication of ALL THE SMALL WONDERFUL THINGS! Can you tell us about how Alex as a character came about?
Alex was already a fully formed character when I finally sat down to write the first draft of ALL THE SMALL WONDERFUL THINGS (a.k.a., PAWS, in the original Australian edition). Alex is half me and half my son all mushed together to make the sweetest of kids.
My youngest son and I are both autistic and, in many ways, very similar – particularly when it comes to our overactive thinking and worrying, our need to please and do the right thing, and our sensory sensitivities. We both struggle in busy crowds and with certain sounds, tight, scratchy clothes, and bright lights. So, in that sense, writing Alex’s character was like writing a daily journal!
However, since I’m no longer an eleven-year-old child, I drew an awful lot from my son’s experiences at school. Again, I injected my own processing and memories of when I was at primary school into Alex’s reactions and interactions, but modern school life is different in many ways now. As the parent of an autistic child, I worked closely with the teachers and other staff to ensure my son’s school experience was as smooth and enjoyable as possible, and this helped me get a strong sense of the inner workings, the environment, and how kids talk!
Do you think there is a special connection between autie kids and their pets, especially their dogs? (because I do!)
Oh absolutely I do! And I’m glad you mentioned all pets because I have autistic friends who have extra-special bonds with horses, cats, parrots, and rats! Dogs tend to be the most spoken about simply because they’re the more common pet and go-to animal for therapy and support. But communicating and connecting with animals in general is far simpler than communicating with humans for many auties. Animals are consistent, they don’t judge, they’re loyal no matter the situation, and they value and cherish the safety and security friendship can provide. All these things also apply to most of the autistic people I’ve met.
Dogs don’t care whether you can form the right sentence at the right moment, or if you make the right facial expression or react in the right way. They don’t care if you want to watch the same TV show or listen to the same song or play the same game a million times over. They don’t have to be told explicitly when you need support and help or quiet and calm, or detailed explanations as to why you can’t attend an engagement or meet a deadline. They sense it, hear it, feel it, and they’re there for you regardless.
Most autistic people I’ve met love in a more complete way than most others. When they love something or someone, they’re all in, deeply, committed, forever. Much in the same way animals love.
Where does Kevin come from?
Kevin is based on one of my own second-hand dogs. About nine years ago, we went to meet Claude, a cockapoo, whose owners were unable to care for him the way he needed. I respect to this day their decision because Claude’s wellbeing and happiness was at the centre. And it worked out pretty well for us!
The minute we walked through the door, Claude made a beeline for my youngest son, who was five at the time. It was like Claude knew in that instant that my son needed him. Claude followed him around, sat next to him, brought him toys, and wanted all the pets from him. It was magical to watch, and still to this day, they are best friends, soulmates. How this unspoken bond could be formed so solidly in the blink of an eye and then continue each and every day since, for me, is both a mystery and a marvel at the same time. So writing Kevin was easy – I just watched Claude.
How has the autistic literary landscape changed, in your opinion, in the past few years? How have things improved?
I’ve noticed a big improvement in the autistic literary landscape since PAWS was first acquired in 2019. Back then, though other books had obviously also been acquired but unannounced, there didn’t seem to be many children’s books starring autistic characters and written by autistic authors at all. There were autistic characters, of course, but more often than not they were in didactic stories and portrayed insensitively using harmful stereotypes.
Roll on four years and there are so many more books available, from picture books through to young adult titles, and even a school reading series from Collins Big Cat dedicated solely to neurodivergent characters and authors and illustrators. The one hole I still think publishers need to fill is the early reader / chapter book space, so books for children aged five plus who are moving into reading longer books independently. I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough diversity, beyond autism representation, for this age group.
What are the newer challenges?
I’d say the newer challenges that publishers need to focus on is publishing more books written by autistic authors from varying backgrounds, more books that are not solely about autistic struggles (balance is needed), and more books in other genres beyond contemporary stories. Autistic people can also be knights and wizards and warriors and princesses and monster hunters and just about everything else! I want to see way more auties being allowed to do these things.
Any thoughts on differences in Australia vs. in US?
Sadly, from my perspective at least, Australia is a long way behind the US when it comes to representing disability in children’s books. A long way. Let alone offering publishing deals to disabled book creators themselves. Most new books that are released that star disabled characters (and there aren’t many) are not written by disabled authors. I can think of five autistic authors off the top of my head who are published over here, backed by their publishing team, and doing okay. Yes, the market is much smaller here, but what message are we giving off if we’re not even close to representing and reflecting the general population? I am trying to make my point and my voice heard where and when I can, and probably making enemies as I go, but I would love to see some immediate change on this front.
What's next on your project list?
Well, how long have you got! I may or may not have some more US-focused news to share in the coming months, but for now I’m working on about four new projects. Who knows if they’ll all end up being published and making it onto shelves, but right now I’m loving the process of creating new sparkly stories and characters.
I’m writing my first verse novel, and I have to say this is my angry book! It stars a gymnastics-loving autistic teenager called Bec, whose teacher believes Bec just needs to try harder to be less autistic and sensitive and fit in. I’m also working on some funny books and, something else I have always been very passionate about, a middle grade horror starring a couple of awesome autistic kids.
I never know how much I’m allowed to share about my writing and when, but it’s a very exciting time for me and I’m hopeful I’ll be around and writing more books for a few more years to come!
Kate Foster is a children’s author writing about friends, family, and dogs. Originally from a small town in the southeast of England, she now lives on the stunning Gold Coast in Australia with her family and second-hand dogs. She is passionate about encouraging and teaching a wider understanding of autism and mental illness via a positive approach and representation in both her books as well as her presentations and talks. Find out more at: