With autism as a daily part of author Ally Condie's life—her 10-year-old son has the brain disorder—it's no surprise it appears in her newest novel Summerlost, a charming middle-grade story available March 29. This new book from Condie, who's already the best-selling author of the young-adult trilogy Matched, is the story of a 12-year-old girl named Cedar, who, along with her mom and younger brother Miles, is working to move on in the summer after the deaths of Cedar's father and autistic brother Ben.
Funny, sad, sweet, and heartwarming, Summerlost really resonated with me because I'm mom to a wonderful autistic 7-year-old. I caught up with Condie, who also has a 4-, 7- and 12-year-old, to learn more about what inspired her to include an autistic character in her book—and why she thinks such inclusion is important.
What inspired you to write Summerlost?
I wanted to write a book about falling into friendship—that kind of true love you have with a real friend is as rare and important as falling in love. Especially when you are suffering loss the way Cedar is at the beginning of the book. Leo is that person for Cedar—she meets him and knows fairly early on that he's someone special. I had a friend like that when I was Cedar's age—actually, I have him still! I also wanted to write a book about coming through grief, and about love between siblings. Cedar loves both her brothers, Miles and Ben, very much.
Was there any reason you chose to make Ben autistic as opposed to having some other disability or being neurotypical?
As I grew to know Cedar and learned what she'd been through, I realized that Ben had had a hard time communicating with her and I started to understand why that was. Part of her heartbreak stems from the fact that she was just starting to feel that she knew Ben, even though she always loved him.
Tell me about your son with autism.
He was diagnosed when he was five. He works harder than anyone I know, and he loves skiing, hiking, Star Wars, going on family vacations, and hanging out with his brothers and sister. We adore him.
What did you read or do to learn more about autism? Did you talk to any autistic people?
I did. My son has autism and anxiety. I spend a lot of time around him—of course!—and around his classmates, friends, and teachers. But I don't presume to tell the full story of someone with autism. That's not my story to tell. What I can tell is the story of a person who deeply loves someone with autism and who wishes she were better at communicating with them.
It's never explicitly said that Ben's autistic. Why is that?
I wanted Ben to be Ben, not Ben with a label. I want the same for my own son.
Were you apprehensive to approach both autism and death in a middle-grade novel?
I wasn't. I think it's important to address things that kids deal with, and to represent the real world and not the fairy-tale version of it. There are also many books out there dealing with these issues, so I knew it was something readers needed and to which they were responding. Of course, although I wasn't hesitant to approach it, I also tried very hard to get it "right," and to make it feel true, at least to my experience and to Cedar's.
One thing I really loved about the book is that it was clear that although much of the family's activity revolved around Ben, he was never presented as a burden. I know Cedar did have some internal conflict about him, but she stood up for him and he was genuinely a part of the family and was sorely missed. Was this deliberate? Any other thoughts on autism acceptance?
It was deliberate, but also innate to their relationship. I didn't set out to write him as an important part of their family—he just was. I think every sibling dynamic is complicated in different ways. Cedar felt very protective of Ben and loved him. His loss was almost more than she could bear, even though sometimes he—like any sibling!—complicated her life or broke her heart. He also made her laugh and shaped who she was.
Do you think you'll include more characters with special needs in your future books?
I never know what I'm going to write until I'm in the story. I always start with the seed of an idea and I'm not sure until I get into the writing what the emotional core of the story will be. But I imagine I will because it reflects my life and the lives of many people.
Why do you think it's important to include diversity—ethnic, cultural, and neurological—in children's literature?
Kids are awesome. And they are diverse. There are children with different abilities and backgrounds and experiences, and every one of them deserves to find themselves in children's literature and to know that they matter. It's important for them to be able to read about kids that they recognize now so that they feel empowered to tell their own stories—in whatever medium that might be—when they're ready.