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Monica Tesler: Mountains, Mirrors, Neurodiversity in the BOUNDERS series

Sometimes I start off the story of becoming a published author by saying Bounders was built on a mountain of failure. It’s a good launchpad to talk about resilience and perseverance and good old hard work. There’s no escaping the reality that there’s usually a lot of rejection and disappointment along the road to success.

So it was that I found myself high upon that mountain when I decided to write Bounders. I had written a young adult dystopian novel that had collected dozens of rejections from literary agents. It was time for that book to go back to the virtual bookshelf. I needed to write something new or walk away from my dream of becoming a published author.

Right around that time, my oldest son had discovered his love of reading. He was devouring fantasy and adventure series. He knew I’d written a book, and he asked to read it.

My heart melted right then and there. We had already gone through so much with this boy. He was smart, and sensitive, and a gifted musician. He struggled to pay attention, to stay in his chair, to grasp a pair of scissors. He had a unique collection of strengths and challenges, and he was throwing us curve balls daily.

Truth be told, he wasn’t quite ready to read the doomed young adult book (i.e., lots of kissing and he was only eight). In his sweet request to read something I had poured my heart into, however, he helped me make a decision. By then I knew how hard it was to get a book published. The odds were not particularly in my favor. But I had a reader right in front of me, my favorite reader. So I set out to write a book for him, that he could read, an adventure story like the kind he loved. This one would be a bit different, though. In this book, kids like him would be the heroes.

In this book, kids like him would be the heroes.

As luck (and some skill and lots of hard work) would have it, this new book was scooped up by Simon & Schuster and thus destined for a different fate. Bounders is my science fiction adventure series about the first class of cadets at the EarthBound Academy for Quantum Space Travel. The Bounders always knew they were different, but they never suspected they held the secret to saving Earth. Spoiler: They save Earth (like I said, they’re heroes). They’re also neurodiverse.

Before I accepted the multi-book offer for the Bounders series, I talked to my editor on the phone. I wanted to make sure we were on the same page about certain issues. For one, I don’t use diagnostic labels in the books. One reason has to do with worldbuilding. In the Bounders future, most neurodiversity has been bred out of the population, so there’s no familiarity with these kinds of brain differences. Another reason is that I hoped many young readers would identify with one or more of my characters. I feared that in the specific context of my books, labels wouldn’t add value, and actually might cause readers to question their connections or say “oh, that’s not me.” Plus, not all my characters fit neatly into boxes.

Also, this was a mirror of my life at that moment. My son didn’t fit neatly into boxes, and neither did many of his friends and classmates who we’d gotten to know from his time in our town’s integrated preschool. Some had sensory processing challenges, difficulty with fine and gross motor skills, emotional regulation issues, anxiety, reading difficulties, social and communication issues, and other challenges that were rarely static. For example, when handwriting struggles seemed to be fading in our rear view, we encountered an executive functioning roadblock up ahead.

And when I gazed deeply into the mirror between our life and my books, I could see all the way back to my own childhood and personal experience, always feeling different but never having the words to describe my otherness, ultimately landing on terms like odd and quirky and far too sensitive. I can’t help but laugh over my pediatrician’s portentous judgment long ago that I “suffered” from an overactive imagination. If he only knew.

Talking to other parents along the way, I’ve come to learn that my experience isn’t unique. Many of us see our own reflections in our children. Through raising them, we gain insight and understanding of ourselves. My son and I—though we may not fit neatly into boxes—are most certainly not neurotypical.

At home, my family uses the strengths and challenges rubric when we talk about our own lives and the difficulties of being neurodivergent in a world that prioritizes neurotypicality.

The kids in Bounders learn to work together, combining their strengths and challenges to save their planet. At home, my family uses the strengths and challenges rubric when we talk about our own lives and the difficulties of being neurodivergent in a world that prioritizes neurotypicality. My books have served as helpful launchpads for these talks. As many wise authors and educators have noted before me, fantasy and science fiction can be great access points for tough issues and deep thinking.

Some of my most special author moments have been when readers tell me they identify with my characters. I’m beyond grateful that I’ve helped create these connections. There’s something so special about seeing yourself in a book. It’s my wish for every reader. Plus, who can argue that identifying with a hero in an action-packed space adventure is pretty stellar?

I’m so glad I climbed down from that mountain of failure and wrote the next book. The fifth and final Bounders book, Fractured Futures, released in December. Toward the end of the book, a character with much wisdom and experience observes that “in diversity lies the true wealth of the universe.” The value of neurodiversity and the celebration of all different types of brains is a central theme in the series and a message I hope my readers carry forward in their lives. And I also hope that some of those readers who have never seen themselves in a book find a mirror in mine.

Monica Tesler is the author of the Bounders series, a five-book science fiction adventure series from Simon and Schuster aimed at tweens and teens. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Michigan. She writes on the commuter boat, in coffee shops, and at her kitchen table. She tries to meditate everyday but often ends up fantasizing

about space, time travel, or strange lands, both real and imagined. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and their two boys.

Twitter: @monicatesler

Instagram: @monicatesler


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