The Zen of Issue Books, or Adventures in Science-y Fiction

When I was at the KidLitosphere Conference, one of the panels was a bunch of authors talking about blog tours—the best way to host them, the best way to participate in them as a writer, that sort of thing. It was there I saw the interesting Jacqueline Houtman, who's just written a book called The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. She was very charming, endearingly nerdy and thoughtful, and quite forceful in her advocacy for what she calls "science-y fiction," which is (according to her, and she says she coined the term, so we'd better listen, though she omits the hyphen with kind of gets to me) fiction with real science, as opposed to science fiction (which is more called speculative fiction now anyway, I think?).

Anyway, now that I've digressed (though digression is, sort of, the point of this post), let me say that her book is about a boy named Edison Thomas, and it's fairly clear immediately that he's autistic (or has Asperger Syndrome), though the book itself never directly says so. I spoke with Houtman for a moment after her presentation, and we talked about some of the things we talk about on this blog: how so many middle grade novels seem slanted toward a female readership; how social stories and the whole idea of narrative are so crucial for kids on the spectrum, but how often they don't find narratives appealing; how you can bring a kid on the outside of the world of literature more into it.

So then I went home, and I read it.

And it made me wonder: this was a book that was telling the story of a kid with issues, but I wonder whether a kid with those same issues would identify in any way. I was thinking of the books that kids are drawn to versus the ones we think would be great for them. And it struck me that the best possible home for this book wasn't necessarily on the bookshelf of a kid with Asperger Syndrome, but maybe down the hall in his brother's room.

Not that I'm sure about that. No doubt, a lot of the excellent and intriguing science in this book (and there's a lot, including a sort of thumbnail biography of Thomas Edison) would appeal to anyone who liked to read about that sort of thing. And the random facts strewn throughout the story are sort of perfect candy for the type of person (like myself) who collects bizarre factoids (not everyone does this, right?). But the delicate parts, the fraught, social interactions between Eddy and his potential friends, between Eddy and his erst-while friend now tormentor, are trickier. And they are, I think, sort of perfect for the people who live with people like Eddy but aren't like Eddy, meaning—the rest of the world.

I'm not altogether certain that I'm not just forcing this reading of the book to fit with some of the things I've been thinking about. A recent obsession of mine is noting how often we as a culture/society tend to approach so many things distressingly head-on: 

A kid has bad handwriting? Teach them earlier! More! All the time. And then I find out that the kid with the best handwriting wasn't working on it that way at all, but spent all of kindergarten knitting and crocheting, and made his fingers strong through play.

A kid reverses his letters or numbers? Make him write it the correct way 1,000,000,000 times! And then I hear on the radio that this interesting neuropsychologist thinks that all you need to do is try writing the reversed number/letter with a different colored pencil for a while.

Sometimes the best way to go at something is not to focus on the target, maybe (I am horribly paraphrasing from having read The Zen of Archery one time in a doctor's office about 35 years ago, so please forgive whatever inaccuracies I'm perpetuating).

So now I'm extending this theory to everything. And let me be clear: if I knew a science-devoted boy with Asperger Syndrome, I would definitely give him this book (if I knew him well, that is). And I don't think she made this book with any sort of didactic purpose in mind; I think she wanted to tell a story that really meant something to her, and that addressed a big old gap in children's literature. And she did.

But I think, too, that maybe it would be a really great book to give someone who was a little off-target: a brother, a sister, a bully. And maybe sending it out into the world that way, it will have an even more powerful impact.

One thought on “The Zen of Issue Books, or Adventures in Science-y Fiction

  1. Oh, thank you for this post. I am taking it in another vein altogether. My students will be reading “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” beginning next week, and I would love to suggest further reading to them. This sounds like just the thing! I am getting it right now!
    That being said, I agree whole-heartedly with your account. We do hyper focus on things that may need a different sort of focus to be more effective.


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