An Interview with Merriam Saunders
Q: Can you tell us a little about your upcoming debut?
Just Like Me is a collection of 40 stories from around the world, featuring neurologically and physically diverse individuals who broke and/or challenged stereotypes. All of the people in the book did something to change the world, or to make things more accessible for others, or helped inspire others like them, to understand that being different didn’t make you less.
Q: How did the very first idea for your book come to you?
I was at a SCBWI conference and had been attending many fabulous talks. One of the speakers sparked the idea, due to some of the language they had been using. It wasn't the first time I’d heard this speaker, and whilst they were careful to address language that writers may use that could be upsetting to marginalised groups, they still kept using phrases like “they are crazy,” “they are mental,” and “what's wrong with them.”
It got me thinking about my own lived experience growing up as a neurodivergent person.
How their own language, if we were going to be addressing this, was actually potentially offensive to people like me.
I went home and wondered how other neurodivergent people may feel when they hear this sort of language. And beyond that, why were we being left out of the conversation, when it came to inclusion and diversity?
I am a neurodivergent person, with neurodivergent children, and a neurodivergent family. But, did we actually know much about other neurodivergent people? Did we know their stories? And… where were these stories?
The more I dived into this idea, the more people kept popping up, people who, until now, may not have had their stories or names heard or shared before. Others, who were definitely recognisable.
I soon realised that it wasn’t just neurodivergent voices that were going unheard, but seemingly disabled people too. A brilliant writing friend and her daughter suggested I considered including Usain Bolt -- he had scoliosis, just like her daughter did. Frida Kahlo lived with chronic pain just like my middle daughter.
And so my mission began: to find, write and share these stories.
Q: Your book deals with ADHD. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
My youngest daughter and I have ADHD, although we have both had very different experiences with it.
Whilst I grew up undiagnosed, but very aware I was different, I had no support, help or understanding. ADHD was seemingly a boys' thing, and it was for kids who were extremely naughty… (So very wrong!) I was just a kid that couldn’t concentrate, who was completely disorganised, manic, loud, and sometimes, just too much.
My daughter got her diagnosis aged eight. She was more deeply affected by the way others treated her, the way they isolated her and spoke to her as if she was ‘an idiot.’
I grew up not even knowing why I was different, and assuming all the wrong stereotypes, while she knew why she was different, and because she knew, was often looking to see if there was anyone else out there (besides me) who was like her. She felt alone and isolated.
When I started pulling out potential names to research and highlight as an ADHD ambassador, she was so excited. “They are Just Like Me!” she exclaimed.
When I told my publishers her reaction to seeing these stories, they agreed she had come up with the PERFECT title. Just Like Me.
This is what we wanted for this book, for kids to be able to see people, just like them, or maybe not at all like them, doing amazing things. To be able to connect with these journeys, stories and personalities in one way or another.
I chose to feature Simone Biles’s story. A strong and an amazing female. Someone who had gone through people trying to shame her for being who she was. But also, someone who stood up and rejected these hurtful remarks and proudly spoke about her ADHD. There was no shame in being different, or, in her case, taking medication that helps her manage her symptoms.
Previously my daughter had been wary of taking medicine -- she was worried that being on medication would possibly give others more reason to bully her. But here was Simone, who had also faced bullies, saying that if you want to take meds, or you need to take meds, it's okay, if of course it helps.
Taking medication is ALWAYS my daughter's decision. I personally think it’s important for her to be able to learn to understand and manage her ADHD. But, seeing someone else talk about it, took so much of the stigma away and made it easier for her to consider her options. There was someone like her out there, who probably went through the same thought process and who also had to make the right decision for them.
Q: How did you find a balance between writing authentically about mental health while still keeping your book entertaining and age appropriate?
When you are doing short biographies for a nonfiction book, you are basically trying to fit people’s life stories into 600 words. You still need a story arc, to show they went through things, but out of that, many positive things were also made possible.
A few people in my book passed away due to their ailments. Nkosi Johnson was just 12 when he lost his battle with HIV and AIDS. Sadako Sasaki was also 12 when she passed away from Leukemia, and Mattie Stepanek, who was just 13. I understand this could be extremely difficult and triggering to young children. But these stories are so important to include, the legacy some people left behind is so great, and it’s important to hear how, even at such a young age, you can still have an impact on the world, still do so much, or leave so much behind that can change how others see things.
I think this is an important conversation to have at any age, and if done in the right way, is still accessible, relatable -- not scary, worrying or triggering. Kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for at times.
Q: Did you have to do special research to write this book?
Part the way through writing this book, I had the idea to add a small box at the bottom of each person’s story, to explain their neurological or physical diversity/difference.
As a mother, I could already hear the echoes of “whys” and “what is that” and knew it would be almost impossible for all parents to answer these questions without hopping on the internet to do their own research (not so great mid story). Research was my job, and I wasn’t going to leave any parents in the lurch, having to fumble for explanations, or worse, pulling something out of thin air which could be completely wrong or inappropriate!
Each box is just a paragraph or two to explain the diagnosis: what it is and how it affects people. I do however fully understand that none of these things can be explained completely within such a small amount of space, it’s more of a gentle introduction. I do, at the very beginning of my book, urge that if people are interested in learning more about the people featured or any of the diagnosis’, beyond the basic explanation I have offered, to please, of course, do their own continued reading and research.
Q: What is your favorite part of the book?
Can I say the illustrations? Haha… I didn’t even do those, but they do bring the book to life!
I have four amazing illustrators from around the world, who identify as physically or neurologically diverse themselves. Caterina delli Carri, from Italy, Angel Chang from Taiwan, Melissa Iwai in New York, and cathyhookey in Texas, but originally from the UK.
Each have their own unique style and I am so grateful for all their work and for being a part of this book.
Q: Tell us what’s next!
I have a few ideas up my sleeve, but most likely I will be creating some more work focussed on and around neurodivergent representation. I do have a picture book which is in the middle of edits with an amazing publisher but I can't say any more as it’s not been announced yet!
Q.Where can we find your book?
At the moment it has been released in the UK, across Europe and Australia. The plan is to have a US release (fingers crossed) later this year. But of course, if you don’t want to wait and want to get your hands on a copy now, you can order online at Book Depository, who offer free worldwide delivery.
Louise Gooding is a member of SCBWI and runs the Writers & Illustrators of Zurich Facebook group.
Inspired by stories from her own experiences and within her family, she took up writing to find a way of discussing neurological and physical diversity, and how to explore other sensitive issues with children’s books.
You can find her at www.louisegooding.com.