A few weeks ago, I got to review Rogue by the wonderful and talented Lyn Miller-Lachmann. But Lyn doesn’t just write fabulous books that deal with diversity and kids facing adversity. She, herself, has a great deal of lived experience dealing with adversity and she uses that experience to work tirelessly to help the lives of children and adults here and throughout the world. In my mind, Lyn is a real life superhero and I admire her greatly. She has agreed to share some of her experiences with us today. This interview was conducted via email and my questions are in italics.
Would you mind talking a little bit about what it was like for you socially growing up with Asperger’s?
I always had difficulty understanding and following rules. Early on, that meant I spent a lot of time excluded, in “time-out.” I also had difficulty initiating friendships and in first grade made up my own classroom of 24 kids, who were all my friends. I gave them names and decided who were the good students and who were the ones that always got into trouble. When I learned to write, I wrote those characters and stories down, so writing became a way for me to create a world that I could control and where I had a place.
Later on in elementary school, kids started making fun of me for being different, and I got into a lot of fights, with boys as well as with girls. Because I also tended to cry when I was frustrated or disappointed—people said I cried every day—I was often bullied for sport; kids enjoyed making me cry. My greatest desire was to be popular, and the girls especially knew that and used that to take advantage of me. For instance, one of the popular girls told me in sixth grade that it was now in fashion for us to cut our hair short. I got my hair cut so short I looked like a boy, and when I got to school, no one else had cut her hair and they all laughed at me. A month or two later, the popular crowd decided it was in fashion to wear two ponytails. So I tried to make ponytails of my chopped-off hair. I looked ridiculous, and the girls got to laugh at me again. One of them approached me in science class, said she felt sorry for me, and offered me advice. She told me that I shouldn’t try so hard to be popular because I was only making a fool of myself.
In middle and high school, I was fortunate to have at least one teacher who cared about me. I liked talking to the teachers because I was a straight-A student and curious about the world. Having these caring adults in my life really saved me, because I didn’t know why I was different, why the bullies always targeted me, and why I had so much trouble making friends my own age. In those days, the Asperger’s diagnosis didn’t exist, and while I did hear the term “borderline autistic,” the diagnosis of autism was generally reserved for those who were nonverbal and severely affected.
I didn’t talk about Chad’s family in my review of Rogue, but he comes from an abusive drug-dealing family. Where did your inspiration for his character and his family come from?
I attended an elementary school in a working-class white neighborhood in the South, and there were a number of kids who came from abusive homes. Like me, those kids were outsiders, and while many of them picked on me, I was also fascinated by them because they didn’t fit in either. These were generally the boys who’d had to repeat grades. Among the “bad boys” was a pair of undersized twins who were nonetheless a year older than everyone else. People said their father was a drunk, among other things. In fifth grade, one of the twins cornered me when I was riding home from school alone on my bicycle, and I turned on him and beat him up. His friend said, “Wait until your brother hears who beat you up.” I still remember what those twins looked like and how they talked, and they became the models for Chad.
Can you say a little about the social justice work you do public speaking and blogging? Why is this work so important?
I review children’s and young adult books on social justice topics for The Pirate Tree, www.thepiratetree.com, and also for the “Waging Peace” column of the online edition of my local newspaper, the Albany Times-Union. I’ve been involved in organizations to promote human rights, intellectual freedom, economic justice, and environmental sustainability, but while I’ve attended my share of demonstrations over the years, I see writing as the best place for me to make a contribution. I am especially proud of my debut YA novel Gringolandia (2009) for taking on the issue of torture and its brutal effects on the individual, families, and communities. I had started the novel in the 1980s, when I worked with refugees from U.S.-supported dictatorships in Central and South America, but I put it aside after losing a contract with a major publisher. I returned to the novel in 2005 after the revelations of U.S. atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, because I saw people ignoring or even justifying torture. People got their information about torture from propagandistic thrillers like “24” and I wanted to show the other side, to make people think about the suffering and consequences of deliberately inflicting pain on other human beings. And today “24” has been cancelled, but Gringolandia is still in print and still being used in high school and college classes.
What topics would you like to see covered at all or more of in books for children and young adults?
I’d like to see more, and a broader range of, books that reflect the diverse backgrounds, cultures, and experiences of young people in the United States today. According to recent statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, between 5 and 10 percent of children’s and young adult books published by traditional publishers feature protagonists who are African American, Asian American, Latino, or Native American, even though that’s about half of the children born today. When children don’t see themselves in the books they read, they come to believe that reading isn’t for them. When more books about diverse populations find their way into print, that will also lead to books that present a wider variety of experiences than the stereotypical ones we see today of, say, life in the inner city or historical fiction that concentrates on slavery and the civil rights movement.
What are some of your favorite books for/about kids going through tough times?
I like Zetta Elliott’s picture book for older readers, Bird (2008), and her two time travel novels, A Wish After Midnight (2010) for young adults, and Ship of Souls (2012) for middle grade readers. In all these novels, her African American characters face daunting challenges and dilemmas but find strength in their imagination and in searching for their roots.
Fans of the spunky foster child in Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins will find further inspiration in the form of 12-year-old Carly in Linda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys (2012).
When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders because I was also an outsider and I admired Ponyboy and his friends for being able to survive in a hostile world and for being good people in spite of it. I was also into the X-Men for that reason, but I didn’t stick with them with the same fervor that Kiara in Rogue does, because they didn’t have the same range of characters in those days. The X-Men provides the same kind of fictional community for Kiara that The Outsiders did for me, but if I were to recommend a novel for someone like Kiara today, I’d recommend the ones by Matt de la Peña, especially Mexican WhiteBoy (2008), the protagonist of which is, like Kiara, half Latino and half Anglo, and We Were Here (2009), a novel of friendship among three troubled boys.