I recently had the honor of interviewing a writer I deeply, madly admire:
Elana K. Arnold, acclaimed and beloved author of the A BOY CALLED BAT
books, as well as many other truly exceptional, deep and searching reads --
including National Book Award finalist WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF, and DAMSEL.
Her books about young autistic Bixby Alexander Tam (BAT) are endearing
themselves to a generation of young readers -- and forging connections and
understanding when it comes to neurodiversity. Without further ado, here
are my questions and Elana's wonderful answers.
--Sally J. Pla
SJP: Can you tell us how the very first idea for the BAT books came to you?
EKA: I enter each story through one of three doors. Sometimes, I’m inspired by a particular setting; sometimes, I have a great idea for a particular plot point; and sometimes, a character comes to me. That is where the BAT books began—with BAT himself, and, more particularly, with his name. I have a brother who has gone by his initials, which spell ZAK, all his life, a quirky detail I’ve always loved. Fiction, I think, comes from noticing something that interests you and then asking, “What if?” What if there were a boy with initials that spelled a name, but what if, instead of “ZAK,” his initials spelled “BAT?” What kind of a kid would like that nickname? He’d have to be a kid who loved animals, I decided. A kid like me. And that’s where the idea for these books began.
SJP: Bixby Alexander Tam is such a wonderful and naturally autistic character, in all the ways that is good, and all the ways that is challenging. How did you develop this character? Did you do research, to make Bat feel so authentic?
EKA: Bat and I have a lot in common. Much of his personality and his physicality comes from my own self, the way I felt and acted as a kid, the way I still often interact with the world. Additionally, Bat has similarities to other people I know deeply and well. And, I did do a ton of research, which I do for all my books, in different ways—in this case, reading books written by autistic people about their lived experiences and fiction written by autistic people, as well as many books on skunk care. And, my wonderful publisher, Walden Pond Press, hired a sensitivity reader for all three books. Her insight was invaluable.
SJP: Bat's autism isn't pointed out. It's not a big deal. Just part of who he is. I liked especially how respectfully and naturally Bat's teacher treats him... Was this a conscious decision on your part -- to not point out the autism directly as a diagnosis or a 'thing?'; and if so, why?
EKA: In the first book, I didn’t intentionally leave out Bat’s autism diagnosis. The book is written from a close third person point of view, and I followed Bat’s thoughts. As you say, Bat’s autism is part of who he is, as intrinsic as his love of animals, his role as a younger brother, his affection for smooth yogurt—especially vanilla. In this way, his autism infuses the book.
Bat’s autism is part of who he is, as intrinsic as his love of animals, his role as a younger brother, his affection for smooth yogurt—especially vanilla. In this way, his autism infuses the book.
In the second book, Bat overhears Janie’s friend asking, “Janie, didn’t you tell me your brother is autistic?” and mentioning that she has an autistic cousin. This was a conscious choice, as my editor and I both wanted to be clear that Bat is a kid with autism, and we wanted readers to be clear about this fact.
SJP: When you talk to young readers about the BAT books, what questions do they typically like to ask you?
EKA: Kids love to ask about the animals—if I’ve ever had a pet skunk (sadly, no, though I had a wonderful ferret for many years). They often wonder why Bat is autistic as well as why his parents are divorced. And, lots of kids ask me if there will be more BAT books!
SJP: Have you had any reactions you could share with us from young autistic readers and/or their families?
EKA: The response I’ve gotten from parents, teachers, librarians, and kids has been incredible. One teacher shared that one of her students, a boy who’d been diagnosed with autism but whose parents hadn’t shared the diagnosis with him, asked if he could borrow the book so that his parents could read it. “I’m like Bat,” he told his teacher.
Parents write to tell me that the BAT books have built bridges between their autistic and neurotypical children
Parents write to tell me that the BAT books have built bridges between their autistic and neurotypical children; kids themselves write to say they see themselves in Bat, sometimes recognizing a neuroatypical kinship, but other times seeing other reflections of themselves: a love of animals; the frustration of being the younger sibling; a shared affinity for specific foods, and more. What a phenomenal, heart-opening experience the BAT books have been for me.
SJP: Almost all kids love animals, but the connections between autistic kids and their pets can be especially strong. What made you choose a skunk to be BAT's pet, in the books? (An inspired choice, I might add!)
EKA: Ah, Thor! I love him so much. Well, I’ve always had a special interest in pets, especially unusual pets, and writing for me is often an exercise in wish fulfillment. Additionally, a skunk was a great fit because I wanted to create conflict for my characters—that’s one of an author’s most central jobs! Had Bat’s mom brought home a kitten or a puppy, the stakes wouldn’t have been nearly as high.
SJP: There is a quiet orderliness to the storytelling that mirrors the quiet orderliness Bat's
mind/sensory perception requires. How did you decide on tone and style and all these sorts of
EKA: This is a huge compliment. Thank you for describing the books’ tone in this way—that quiet orderliness is exactly what I was going for. Honestly, I didn’t consider these things consciously. They were just… the fabric of the story. I’m synesthetic, and I feel each story’s texture in my mind and on my fingertips. Many such decisions don’t feel like decisions at all, because I am making them with the back of my brain. In revision, my job is to pay attention to what the back of my brain did during the “art part” of writing, and then be purposeful in making sure the reader will experience what I felt during the drafting process.
SJP: For children who loved the BAT books, do you have any other recommendations for them?
EKA: Well, Sally, I’m a huge fan of your books, and often share THE SOMEDAY BIRDS, STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE, and BENJI, THE BAD DAY, AND ME with kids during school visits. I also love THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu.
SJP: Thank you so much. I also loved the sensitive portrayal of THE REAL BOY.
EKA: Also, as far as the tone of the BAT books—if readers want short books that focus closely on the emotional landscape of the protagonist, I recommend the RAMONA books by Beverly Cleary.
SJP: This puts into focus what I love about the BAT books. This simple, quiet, tight focus on a child’s emotional life. You have rendered this for an autistic child, in the same way that Beverly Cleary rendered this for Ramona. What a wonderful gift to ALL kids. Thank you so much, Elana!
Elana K. Arnold is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets.