Thanks for inviting me, Dionna!
First question for you. How did you find your way to becoming a picture-book writer?
As a selectively mute child, I preferred reading and writing to speaking, so it was natural for me to become a writer. My interest in books led me to get a doctorate in English and to become a tenured English professor at Norfolk State University. When I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in my late thirties, my writing became a mission to advocate for the autistic community. I began to write essays for publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
In 2017, one of my online writer friends, Rina Mae Acosta, introduced me to an illustrator, Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, who told editors at Albert Whitman about my work. They asked me if I would be interested in writing a picture book about sensory issues with autism. After a few revisions, they made an offer on the book, and Joanne ended up illustrating it!
That's awesome! What's your debut picture book about?
TOO STICKY! SENSORY ISSUES WITH AUTISM is the story of an autistic girl named Holly who has a fear of sticky hands. She’s anxious about slime-day at school. But with the help of her family, teacher, and classmates, Holly gives slime a try. TOO STICKY! is based on my own and my daughter’s experiences living with autism and sensory issues. The fear of sticky hands is actually more of a sensory issue for me than my daughter. My daughter is much more willing to play with slime or playdough than I ever was.
What inspired you to write it?
I wrote TOO STICKY! because I wanted my kids to see themselves in a picture book. Most picture books that address autism aren’t written from the point of view of an autistic character. I named three characters in TOO STICKY! after my kids, so they could really picture themselves in the story. Watching them giggle when we read the F&G together for the first time is a moment I will never forget.
For accuracy, I researched the science of slime. The back matter in TOO STICKY! includes a slime recipe. I had also interviewed autism researchers from around the world, and developed a special interest in the gender differences with autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every four boys diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, only one girl is diagnosed.
An editor at Albert Whitman read my first essay for the New York Times, “What a Muppet with Autism Means to My Family,” which focuses on Sesame Street’s autistic Muppet, Julia. She then asked me to write TOO STICKY! with an autistic girl as the main character.
In my most recent essay for the New York Times, “My Daughter and I Were Diagnosed with Autism on the Same Day,” I wrote about autistic females who are often overlooked for an autism diagnosis, including me and my daughter. When we were diagnosed, she was two and I was thirty-nine. All of the other children’s books I’ve drafted so far have autistic girls as the main characters to raise awareness and acceptance, especially for autistic females.
Why do you hope children will read your book?
I hope autistic kids will read TOO STICKY! so they see a character that reflects their own life experiences. My book is not a book about autism; it’s a book about a girl who happens to be autistic. She goes about her everyday life. She has pancakes with her family for breakfast. She interacts with her classmates at school. She loves science. But she experiences the world through an autistic lens. Her autism is part of her identity.
I also hope that other kids who read TOO STICKY! will have a better understanding of autism and will be more accepting of differences. Just as preschool kids watching Sesame Street find Julia to be a likable character, I want kids reading TOO STICKY! to root for Holly.
Your book, I know, will be a winner not only with parents and educators of autistic children the world over, but with those kids like Holly who might have a challenge when stickiness gets on their hands. Thanks so much for sharing your journey, Jen! It is truly inspiring.
You are more than welcome.
written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff is about Holly, who loves doing experiments and learning new things in science class! But when she finds out the next experiment is making slime, she’s worried. Slime is made with glue, and glue is sticky. Holly has sensory issues because of her autism and doesn’t like anything sticky! With help from family and her teacher, Holly receives the accommodations and encouragement she needs to give slime a try.
Released by Albert Whitman & Company, April 2020
“Charming, inclusive, and grounded in real-life experiences.” –Kirkus
Purchase your copy, HERE.