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Leanne Schwartz: "To a Darker Shore" and the Monster of Too Much (Autism)


 

"Sometimes as an autistic you can mask your true self from the world so much, even hiding from yourself, that until instead of too much, you become nothing at all."

 


 

“Is this too much?” I asked myself, hunched over my notebook as I scribbled plans for a new story. My last young adult fantasy had featured a fat statue and an autistic poet. Two parts of my identity neatly cleaved into two different characters. But the idea had just struck me that for my next project, the fat shepherdess who wants to be an inventor to the king and the painter who suddenly finds himself the extremely reluctant heir to the throne might both be autistic.


Two autistic protagonists? A heroine who’s fat and autistic? In this economy? Was I even allowed to do that? Would publishing let me? I was still querying literary agents at this point, and being told by some my characters were already unrelatable and unmarketable. Maybe it was better not to reach too far, push too hard, be too much.


This was an old impulse, one I’d trained into myself growing up an undiagnosed autistic (as something like 80 percent of autistic girls are). Autistics deal with a world that can feel like too much, full of overstimulating noises, textures, and expectations, and so often feel like too much themselves. Whether it was how I sang the same bits of showtunes constantly until teachers begged me to stop, or rambled with busy hands about musical theater and books, or complained about itchy seams and bright lights and smells, or burst into tears when plans changed, there were parts of me I eventually learned were better held inside, chained deep down.


But it was so much work, and whenever things grew too overwhelming—someone accidentally tugging on my bobby-pinned hat backstage at the theater, knocking me down while playing, chewing food or gum too near—all my careful control would evaporate and I’d scream. It was terrifying; melting down felt like I’d let some monstrous part of myself escape. After all, I was always told I was the one hurting people—because whatever others had done couldn’t possibly have bothered me, let alone actually hurt, as much as I claimed.


I found ways to fight the monster. Theater was good; there were scripts you stayed within the bounds of, assigned lines and lyrics and movements you practiced over and over instead of having to puzzle out people’s uncertain intentions and implications in the moment. And books; I soaked up downtime alone in my room or in the quiet, organized calm of the library. But I also started overthinking everything that came out of my mouth, berating myself for talking too much, parsing conversations after the fact for hours, studying what others said.


In some contexts I took to waiting silently, because once you put your words out there, you couldn’t pull them back. And so often they seemed to come out all wrong, earning upset stares from college friends, confused wrinkled noses from bosses. I was still trying so hard, struggling to learn my part, and it felt like everyone had some other, secret script I didn’t.


So the habit of holding back was tempting as I considered what shape this book would take, eventually even becoming one of its themes. To a Darker Shore is the story of selectively-nonspeaking inventor Alesta, who accidentally damns her best friend Kyrian to hell as a sacrifice, and travels there to kill the devil and avenge him -- only to find Kyrian alive but monstrously transformed.


Both characters go through arcs where they’re worried about being too much. Alesta believes she’s caused Kyrian’s death, and wipes away all her dreams and ambitions to instead perfectly follow the edicts of their church, hoping she can avoid harming anyone else and find a way to atone. And long before he’s sacrificed, Kyrian has already been hiding so much of who he is, masking his autism whenever he’s at court, fighting his need to stim, and suffering through sensory overwhelm without a word.


Between his autism and his growing uncertainty in the face of an unjust and restrictive society, Kyrian believes himself so broken that he kills his urge to speak up for what he thinks is right, and copies others around him until he loses any sense of who he once was himself, ultimately wandering hell in monstrous form.


Sometimes as an autistic you can mask your true self from the world so much, even hiding from yourself, that until instead of too much, you become nothing at all.


But by the time I was tackling this book, I’d found others like me—autistic students I loved working with, autistic parents at the park who pointed out similarities between their families and mine, and eventually other autistic authors—along the way discovering I was autistic too. All those feelings of overstimulation, being at a loss, and losing control suddenly made sense. Knowing the reason didn’t make them go away, didn’t vanquish them, but in recognizing and naming them, I found them far tamer than before. And that left me freer to enjoy the parts of being autistic I love.


So instead of paring down my characters, I went ahead and gave them every complexity a person like myself or the kind of reader I most had in mind might have, even adding that Kyrian’s on the ace spectrum like me, and getting the word autistic on the page for both. My hope was to use all of that “too much” to help this story show, as Alesta and Kyrian find their way together through hell, how it’s community with other autistics that can lead us out of the dark and back to our authentic and accepted selves.


 

"It’s community with other autistics that can lead us out of the dark and back to our authentic and accepted selves."

 


To that end, I’d like to share some recommendations of other fantasy books with neurodivergent protagonists, in young adult and middle grade, that can help readers find themselves and understand others better -- not just this Autism Acceptance Month, but all year round.




by Ivelisse Housman (autism, young adult)


Autistic changeling Seelie and her twin sister are thieves running from the threat that Seelie’s uncontrolled magic has brought down on them, and in the middle of a heist gone sideways, run smack into another pair of adventurers who invite them on a quest for fae treasure that could hold more worth—and secrets—than any gold.

(Ed. Note: A Novel Mind's interview with Unseelie author Ivelisse Housman is here.)




by Andrew Joseph White (autism, young adult)


Silas Bell, an autistic trans boy in a Victorian England where the violet-eyed like him have the power to speak with spirits across the Veil, is sent to boarding school in hopes of making him a good wife rather than the surgeon he longs to become. But at Braxton’s Sanitorium and Finishing School, Silas finds ghosts of dead girls begging for his help and the even more horrific, inescapable threat of the patriarchy.




by Emily Thiede (ADHD, young adult)


Chosen one Alessa bungles everything, from burning bread at her parents’ bakery to killing all three potential husbands she was meant to team up with to protect their island kingdom from monsters sent as a test by the gods, her powers fatally out of control. When Alessa’s failures lead to assassination attempts as some in the kingdom try for a better chosen one, she hires a grumpy, attractive bodyguard with a troubled past of his own who strives to keep her safe and help her master her powers in time to save everyone.




by Michelle Kulwicki

(depression and PTSD, young adult)


In this mediation on grief and mental health challenges, two boys—Zan, who saved his mother’s life in exchange for 500 years of service to the Ferryman who harvests dead souls, and Bastian, who was meant to die in the car crash that claimed his mother—meet and fall in love in the liminal, memory-washed dreamscapes of the underworld, even as Zan must decide whether to turn Bastian’s soul over to his monstrous, unrelenting master.




Godly Heathens by H.E. Edgmon

(mental illness, young adult)


Nonbinary Seminole teen Gem Echols disguises their anxiety with charm, sharing their true self only with long distance Enzo, but when a strange girl claiming to know them from past lives and a murderous god of death show up, they learn they're actually a reincarnated god known as the Magician, disguised as a rural teen, and the only one who knows the location of an ancient weapon that can free all the trapped gods—who are not happy with their less-than-benevolent godly past.




by Alechia Dow (anxiety, middle grade)


Two outcast girls -- Wini, whose misguided love spell that was meant to save her family’s bakery has cursed their entire town, and Kal, whose anxiety creates its own challenges along with her mysterious estranged grandfather reentering her life and rumors of wicked magic -- team up to fix the misfired magic—and maybe fix their dads up on a date.




by Lizzie Huxley-Jones (autism, middle grade)


When autistic, myth-loving Vivi Conway pulls Excalibur from the lake, she learns she’s destined to join the fight against an evil king of the Otherworld, a quest that entails working with new friends, listening to a ghost dog, and fighting off monsters drawing from Welsh mythology—and who can say what’s the biggest challenge.





Like a Charm by Elle McNicoll (dyspraxia, middle grade)


Ramya Knox feels different from others—and not just because of her dyspraxia, but because she can see magical creatures no one else can. At her grandfather’s funeral she receives a gift that leads her and her cousin Marley into a hidden magical world that needs their protection—and into the secrets of their estranged family.




 



Leanne Schwartz is the autistic author of the young adult fantasies A Prayer for Vengeance and To a Darker Shore. She has spent about half her life at either the library or the local theater, where she has played Lady Macbeth, Lady Capulet, Clytemnestra, and Hera—perhaps one reason she writes such vengeful, murderous girls. When she’s not teaching English and poetry, she can be found baking pizzelle, directing scenes for the student Shakespeare festival, and singing along to showtunes. She is also the author of the adult romance My Kind of Trouble under the name L. A. Schwartz, and lives in California with her family. You can find her at leanneschwartz.com.

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