by Merriam Saunders, illus. by Frances Castle. Capstone, March 2, 2021.
For many of us, reading is fun. We can fall into a story any time and be whisked through a wardrobe or onto a pig farm or cast into the universe to search for a missing parent. The story does not fight us. Its words don’t jumble into different sounds. Its flowery metaphors don’t confuse us. And reading aloud in class doesn’t carry the risk of being made fun of.
For my children, reading was painful. Painfully difficult, painfully flowery, painfully boring. Reading brought struggle and shame. As a parent and a therapist—and as an avid reader—I held a conviction, misguided or not, that if only I could find THE story, the one character that showed them “I’m like you and the struggle’s real, but let’s go on adventure together and it will be worth it” --- then maybe they could push through the pain.
Back then, finding stories with autistic, ADHD, or dyslexic characters was not easy. When Percy Jackson came on the scene, I shouted with joy until I realized that his disability was only due to being half-Greek god. Even Rick Riordan needed an excuse to smooth the rough edges of his character’s disability, and that made me sad. (Although, for my son, as it turns out, Percy was THE book. So, thanks, Rick.)
I set out to write something I thought my children and clients might like—a magically adventurous story where the character grappled with realistic ADHD symptoms that impacted his life. But, more importantly, I wanted to show that this character, and the readers that may relate to him, was more than those symptoms. That although his symptoms might drive some trouble in his life, he also had the tools he needed to solve his own problems. And so, TROUBLE WITH A TINY t was born from my kids’ love of dinosaurs and magic.
In it,11-year-old Westin heavily identifies with the trouble his ADHD causes. When he finds a magic pouch, he makes life worse by using the magic to make a tiny T. rex, followed by a headless plastic army and a small Thor. He can’t figure out how to make them go away—and they’re battling in his bedroom, stealing lunchmeat from the fridge, and GROWING. At the same time, he’s forgetting homework, in trouble at school, not listening to parents, and losing his friends, all very common problems for kids with ADHD.
An early review called the book “ultimately empowering” (YAY!) but the reviewer also said something that made me fall off my chair with laughter. “Unfortunately, the text centers a deficit model wherein ADHD is presented as a problem.” It still makes me laugh. For those of us who live and breathe ADHD, yeah—it’s a problem. Often with a capital P. Things get unintentionally lost and forgotten—details, appointments, objects—and the rest of the world doesn’t always understand.
It’s sad to me that the greater message was slightly lost on the reviewer. Because Westin’s ADHD is a problem, but HE is not. He is artistic and kind. He’s funny and a good friend. In the end, his talent for art helps him master the magic and solve his tiny problems. Although Westin initially thinks he is trouble with a capital T, he ultimately realizes the t is just tiny—trouble is not all he’s about.
For me, the reviewer’s comment raises an interesting question when writing about disability these days. In a movement not to pathologize, are we feeling compelled to write stories that depict disability too positively? To write as if there are no real downsides? Having a disability can be hard. Counterbalancing negativity from the world is hard. For many children, it IS a very real problem. We all know that. The stories we share with our children have an opportunity to show that strength, self-esteem and joy is also real, and finding that story balance is key. It’s a big topic, I certainly don’t have answers, but I’m curious about your thoughts.
By the way—as young adults, my children did discover THE book and finally found a love of reading. My oldest will devour any title by Sarah J. Maas. My son still loves Rick Riordan—even though he’s twenty. And my 18-year-old recently consumed STOLEN SECRETS, by L.B. Schulman, in 48 hours.
What a joy it would be as a fellow parent, therapist and as an author to think my little book could someday be THE book, even for just one emerging reader.
Merriam is offering a signed copy
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Merriam Sarcia Saunders LMFT is a family therapist and author of the picture books MY WHIRLING, TWIRLING MOTOR and MY WANDERING DREAMING MIND (Magination Press) and the middle grade TROUBLE WITH A TINY T (Capstone), all affirming stories of children with ADHD. Merriam is the co-founder of ANovelMind, a blog and database of 1000+ kidlit titles focused on mental health and neurodiversity. She lives in northern California with her husband and three kids and a tiny Chihuahua with no teeth.