Martin is a kid like my kids. His mother is American, his father French and he is bilingual. Like my kids, Martin loves French food, art, and books. My son will obsessively read the same book over and over and carry it with him wherever he goes, like Martin. He mixes up his pronouns in both languages using “tu” for “je” and “you” for “I” like Martin. At times, words fail him altogether and he will silently but furiously rock back and forth or excitedly flap his hands. Martin, like my son, is autistic. The difference is that Martin is a fictional character in Hilary Reyl’s latest novel Kids Like Us. The story unfolds through the teen’s travel diary as he visits France for the first time. How is it that I felt I had discovered my son’s journal intime?
Certainly part of it is “Reyl’s firm grasp of the autistic spectrum,” according to James Sinclair of Autistic&Unapologetic, “Martin is one of the most relatable characters I have ever read.” Kids like Us is a Young Adult novel that will appeal to “neurotypicals” as well because Martin experiences the same desires as all teens. Readers of all ages who have ever felt like a fish out of water will find Kids Like Us empathetic, engaging and enlightening. I was fortunate to meet the author, Hilary Reyl, at the American Library in Paris where she was leading a Teen Writing Workshop.
Frog&Ted: Would you say Kids Like Us is a book about coming of age, love, or autism?
Hilary Reyl: Coming of age necessarily involves romance. It’s the story of an American teenager on the autism spectrum who travels to France for the first time and falls for a “typical” French girl. It’s really about connections. How do we connect with the world around us, people from different cultures, backgrounds and languages? It is also about difference and empathy. Martin’s obsession with Marcel Proust’s, In Search of Lost Time helps him navigate the world. He eventually learns that he himself can connect with others.
Frog&Ted: This is an accurate representation of the way many people on the autism spectrum process their surroundings and communicate. Echolalia and scripting is repeating speech patterns from books, movies or conversation. But why Proust?
Hilary Reyl: Proust’s philosophy about the human experience is that it is impossible to really know another human being. This is getting back to the idea of empathy. Martin identifies with the character, Swann, who can’t feel anything directly or love directly. He experiences the world through taste, smell, touch, sound. Proust’s writing is very sensual. Martin is acutely sensitive so the book he calls “Search” is perfect for him because its narrator is also painfully sensitive. Martin’s father, who is French, gave him the book so it is a way for Martin to connect with his father and the past as his father is no longer his primary caregiver.
Frog&Ted: Martin’s mother mentions Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic man was modeled after Joe Sullivan, the real life son of Autism Society of Amerca’s co-founder, Ann Sullivan. Who was your inspiration for Martin?
Hilary Reyl: My seven-year-old daughter is on the spectrum. Watching her learn language has been a moving and beautiful experience. I got Martin’s voice in my head when she was three, quoting her picture books back to me in the most intelligent and creative ways. Martin’s mother’s reaction to having a child that is so different from her is an exploration of my own feelings. She wants him to be happy, but her idea of happiness is not the same as his idea. Many of the questions raised in the book about neurodiversity and acceptance are questions that I’ve asked myself. Of course I then started projecting and remembering my own trip to France as an eleven-year-old. It was at that time, when I was old enough to read and young enough to easily learn a new language, that I really started paying attention to words and decided that I wanted to be a writer.
Frog&Ted: Today you are sharing that passion with teenagers. What advice will you give the young writers to help them find their own voice?
Hilary Reyl: Well, actually, I am going to ask them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine that person’s voice. I’d like them think about the concept of empathy and try writing from a different point of view. We will discuss diversity and I will encourage them to dare to write about issues that are important to them even if they don’t have firsthand knowledge. At first, I was really nervous writing about autism. It is a myth that autistic people can’t connect. So far, the autism community has been very supportive and reviews by people on the spectrum have been wonderful.
Martin, in Kids like Us, grew up seeing the world differently from kids his own age. He teaches us that people have more in common with each other than differences. Even better, Martin learns to accept and appreciate the very things that make him “different”.
Hilary Reyl will be at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Paris 75005 on Wednesday May 23rd, 2018 at 7:30 p.m.