“I think you’re scared to write these characters.”
It was November 2017, and the “characters” this critiquer was referring to were Sam and Asha, two autistic best friends, who in my story, were about to become ex-best friends. And the “you” was me.
The critiquer went on to say that “the reader should know from the very first page that the characters were autistic.” I don’t remember my reply in the moment, whether I mumbled something vaguely defensive or if I just sat there, stung and speechless. I don’t remember much of what the other eight workshoppers had to say about my pages. What I do remember is how, for weeks, the criticism swirled in my head every time I sat down to write. I think you’re scared . . . The reader should know from page one . . .
She had to be wrong. All I wanted was to write something true and good and meaningful (and hopefully funny in parts, too). And if that was what I was trying to do, fear couldn’t have a place in my journey. It would only hold me back . . . wouldn’t it?
I thought and thought about it, and I realized she was wrong—partly. Her feedback that the “reader should know from page one” seemed to assume not just a certain (neurotypical) reader, but also a certain (stereotypical) presentation of autism. It focused on this reader’s perception, instead of Asha’s and Sam’s experiences with their disability. It suggested that I drop hints to satisfy this reader’s preconceived notions of autism, which I knew was the opposite of how I wanted to develop my characters. So she was wrong. Phew!
But I realized . . . she was also right. I was scared. I was scared because Asha and Sam were these full, nuanced characters in my head, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find the words to capture that on the page. I was scared because I understood that even though I loved my autistic family member, and cared about so many autistic people, that wasn’t nearly enough to guarantee that I, a non-autistic person, would get the representation right. And it wasn’t worth trying to publish this book if I couldn’t do that. As I dug deeper into my fear, I also had to admit, I was scared because even though I’d done a lot of external work—researching, reading, listening, educating myself—to write these characters authentically, I hadn’t necessarily done all the internal work to examine their experiences.
I was scared because I had so many questions and so few answers. If I wanted to move forward, I needed to acknowledge my fear. I needed to own it. So I started with my questions. Questions like:
How did Asha feel about her disability?
How did Sam?
How had being autistic enhanced their lives?
When did it make it harder?
How did their special interests enrich their worldview?
How did different circumstances affect how their disability presented, internally and externally?
How did the people around them, especially their family members, feel about autism?
How had that shaped their view of themselves?
I also had questions I might ask for any novel protagonist:
Why do I love this character?
What do I wish they would hurry up and learn already?
What do they want to happen in their lives?
What do they need to happen?
How do they define happiness, success, and failure?
How are they going to break my heart?
How are they going to mend it?
I wish I could say that answering these questions was a linear process akin to filling out a questionnaire. It was not. I wish I could say it took weeks. It was more like years. Some of these questions, like those on family and special interests, came long before the fateful workshop. I’d written this book in part to explore different families, and I knew how cool autistic special interests could be, so both of those were in my story, even if they needed more development. Other questions emerged more slowly over the years, bubbling up when I asked myself what was missing. All of them I answered by just writing and writing, draft after draft, until I had words that felt true enough to share with a sensitivity reader, and after incorporating her feedback, my critique partners.
Now, in 2022, this story is a real book, THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN, and I hope it resonates with lots of readers—autistic kids looking to see themselves in a good book, friends and family members who love the autistic kids in their lives and want books that reflect that reality, teachers and librarians looking to share books about all kinds of people. And yes, even the readers who may have a limited understanding of autism, because hopefully one thing a book does is expand a reader’s world.
In the end, that critique didn’t just impact my story, it impacted how I see myself as an author. Writing books for children is an awesome responsibility, and even more so when you’re writing about kids who’ve been at the margins of children’s literature for too long. It should be scary, at least some of the time. Moreover, for me, understanding why I’m scared helps me figure out where I need to do the work.
Fear isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, it might just be the first step in telling the truest, best story you can.
Meera Trehan grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs where she read as much as she could, memorized poems, and ate enough cookies to earn the nickname “Monster” after the Cookie Monster. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School, she practiced public interest law for over a decade before turning to writing for children. Her debut, THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN, has been named a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection and Amazon Editor’s Pick.
Part thriller, part friendship story, part real estate listing, this witty, inventive debut explores the nature of friendship and home.
Sam and Asha. Asha and Sam. Their friendship is so long established, they take it for granted. Just as Asha takes for granted that Donnybrooke, the mansion on the highest hill, is the best house in town. But when Sam is accepted into a snobby new school as an autistic "Miracle Boy," he leaves Asha, who is also autistic, to navigate middle school alone. Who is Asha without Sam? Told from the points of view of Asha, Sam, and the house itself, this suspenseful and highly original debut explores ableism and classism as it delves into the mysteries of what makes a person a friend and a house a home.