By Jennifer Coburn
Humans make sense of the world through story-telling. We all love good stories, but they may be especially meaningful for those whose brains operate just a bit differently — and for those of us who know and love them.
Award-winning San Diego author Sally J. Pla has written two highly acclaimed books that touch upon what life is like with a slightly different neurology: “The Someday Birds,” and “Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.” She is eager to share why she felt compelled to write them, and what her ongoing literary mission may be.
Join a wide-ranging, inspiring conversation about stories, families, and compassion with award-winning children’s author, Sally J. Pla, and therapist/founder of the Love & Autism Conference, Dr. Jenny Palmiotto, Saturday, April 7, from 1–2:30 p.m. at the Central Library. Their talk is entitled “Kids & Books & Love & Autism.”
San Diego author Sally J. Pla recently received the national Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award for her debut novel “The Someday Birds” (Harper Collins, 2017). The award recognizes high quality books for children, adolescents, and young adults that authentically portray individuals with special needs. Pla’s protagonist is a 12-year-old boy with autism, though the focus of the book is his cross-country road trip to visit his father.
The award is especially meaningful because Pla’s highly anticipated second novel “Stanley Will Probably Be Fine” (Harper Collins, 2018), which also features a protagonist with autism, hit bookstores in early February. The middle-grade tale of anxious Stanley, a comic-book enthusiast who invents his own superhero to help get him through the day, has already been named a Junior Library Guild Selection for 2018. In a starred review, Kirkus recommended Pla’s novel be added to the list of “intelligent books about kids whose brains operate outside the norm.”
As a mother of a son with autism, Pla wanted to write stories that featured neuro-diverse characters involved in a variety of different activities.
“These books aren’t about autism,” she says. “They are adventures that happen with characters who just happen to be naturally neuro-divergent.” Autism is not the story, it is one of the many facets of a character. Pla said she wrote “The Someday Birds” as a “heart gift” to her autistic son. “As a child, he struggled to feel at ease in the world,” she says. “I wanted to say something about what that struggle feels like, to help others realize what that feels like from the inside.”
She said there are some excellent books featuring autistic characters, but not enough. And she’s troubled by how many books seem to be written with the sole purpose of enlightening neuro-typical children about why their autistic classmates behave the way they do. “They are well-intentioned, but I hope we can realize that this can also be a little ‘othering’ and ‘pathologizing,’” she said.
Pla says her books take a different approach.
“I want to write books for all kids to read and find themselves in,” she said. She values the importance of heightening awareness about autism to neuro-typical audiences, but also wants to hold up a reassuring mirror to kids on the spectrum. “For example, in ‘The Someday Birds,’ I want kids to read about Charlie’s super-comfort-driven clothing choices and see themselves or hear about how Stanley gets red alerts from public transportation, and maybe share a knowing laugh because they do that too. And there’s no judgment. These characters are no one’s exhibit A or case study. They are simply heroes of a story who also happen to be on the spectrum.”
Pla’s passion for incorporating autistic characters into her children’s books was sparked by her desire to create stories that would resonate with her son. It took on new life as she began to write, though. When she gave friends advance copies of “The Someday Birds,” they asked how she was able to capture Charlie’s, um, unique mentality, but to her it came very naturally.
“To me it was pretty much normal, it was my own childhood voice, and the book was reminding me of things I’d pushed away and forgotten,” she said.
Pla recalls her childhood as one where she spoke very little and had periods when she was selectively mute.
“I lived in terror of interactions with others and found it nightmarish and bewildering,” she said. “The noise in the school cafeteria gave me panic flares, as did the bus. I had constant stomachaches with the stress of the school day.”
She still suffers from many of these challenges though she has learned to manage them more as an adult.
This led Pla to seek a psychological evaluation, which confirmed what she suspected: She too, was on the autism spectrum.
As she accepted her Dolly Gray Award for her first novel, launches her second, and drafts her third — the story of an autistic girl — she does so with renewed appreciation for the importance of accurately reflecting autism in children’s literature.
“There’s a perception that autism is a 14-year-old boy obsessed with a video game or Sheldon from ‘Big Bang Theory,’” she said. “But the reality is that there are many different kinds of neuro-divergent people.”
She’s hopes her books shed light on that, especially as we learn more about how many people are affected by autism.
“Whenever I visit school groups and ask how many kids have a friend, relative, neighbor, or schoolmate on the spectrum, every single hand goes up,” Pla said. “This is an encouragement and also a challenge to provide more books that portray genuine autistic life-experience.”
—Jennifer Coburn can be reached at email@example.com.