Neurodiverse characters

Neurodivergence can take many forms, and the following chapter-book and middle-grade titles, starring characters on the autism spectrum or those with ADHD (and by authors with first-hand knowledge on the subjects), highlight individuality and diversity of experience. April is Autism Acceptance/Awareness Month; see also our Guide/Reviews Database subject tags Autism and Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder for additional recommended titles.

Henry, like Always
by Jenn Bailey; illus. by Mika Song
Primary    Chronicle    48 pp.
3/23    9781797213897    $14.99

Henry, a boy on the autism spectrum (first introduced in the 2019 picture book A Friend for Henry, rev. 5/19), likes everything about school. Life in Classroom Ten is entirely predictable. Mrs. Tanaka posts the schedule for the week, and Henry can count on having Music on Wednesdays, Free Choice every Thursday, and Share Time on Fridays. So when Mrs. Tanaka announces that the class will hold a special parade on the upcoming Friday in place of Share Time, Henry responds with dismay. All week, Henry objects, but to no avail. On the big day, Henry hands his teacher his Quiet Card and enters the classroom closet to regroup. There, he encounters classmate Samuel, who is unhappy about the parade for a different reason. Henry finds a solution to Samuel’s discomfort, a way to keep Friday as a time to share, and a comfortable place for himself in the parade. The ending of this short chapter book, heavily illustrated and with a format and content to appeal to new readers, is as satisfying as Bailey’s understanding prose and Song’s gentle, friendly illustrations. Henry is an extremely sympathetic hero — relatable and authentic. His open face expresses anxiety, calm, distress, or delight with just small changes to his eyebrows or mouth. Readers will recognize Henry as a child who succeeds in adjusting to what is, for him, an enormous challenge. MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

Speak Up!
by Rebecca Burgess; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    272 pp.
9/22    9780063081208    $22.99
Paper ed.  9780063081192    $13.99
e-book ed.  9780063081215    $10.99

Mia, the twelve-year-old protagonist of this accessible graphic novel, keeps to herself in school and is bullied over her autism. But she shines as Elle-Q, an alter ego known only to her friend Charlie, with whom she makes music videos that have gained an online following. Laura, who’s among the class bullies at first, is a huge Elle-Q fan, and a friendship gradually develops between her and Mia over what’s ostensibly just a shared fandom. (Though the girls take some time to figure this out, they both have secret online identities.) Pressure from Charlie to make the act more public than Mia feels ready for complicates matters and adds to her sense of being overwhelmed. Mia’s increasing eagerness to be — and to advocate for — herself is encouraging, as is the casual diversity among the other characters (light-skinned Mia’s classmates have a variety of skin tones; Charlie is dark-skinned and nonbinary). Varied page layouts in the digital illustrations hold interest, with panel boundaries especially breaking at moments of strong emotion — and when Mia feels free as Elle-Q. SHOSHANA FLAX

A Perfect Mistake
by Melanie Conklin
Intermediate    Little, Brown    288 pp.
7/22    9780316668583    $16.99
e-book ed.  9780316668606    $9.99

Max is not in a good place at the beginning of sixth grade: his ADHD makes school a challenge; a recent growth spurt causes people to think he’s an adult instead of an eleven-year-old; and — thanks to an incident no one wants to talk about — one of his friends is in a coma, and the others are avoiding him. Max worries that he’s to blame for the injury that landed Will in the hospital, but as he starts to remember more about that night in the woods, he realizes someone is covering up the truth. With the help of his new friend Samantha, an aspiring journalist, Max follows clues to figure out what really happened. Max’s life is also upended by a visit from his uncle Cal, a woodworker who lives out of his van. The two bond as Max helps Cal build a display case for Samantha’s family’s bakery, and Max gradually realizes that he might not be the only family member with ADHD — and that his neurotypical sister and parents aren’t as perfect as they seem. The mystery is pitched just right for a middle-grade audience, with high stakes and plausible developments. The plot is well paced, with a good balance between chasing down clues and moments of introspection. Max’s ADHD is a constant presence, but one that doesn’t overwhelm the story, and the book’s many flawed but well-meaning adults add depth to the tween-driven action. SARAH RETTGER

Show Us Who You Are
by Elle McNicoll
Intermediate    Crown    304 pp.
10/22    9780593562994    $16.99
Library ed.  9780593563007    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780593563014    $9.99

In this middle-grade sci-fi tale set in the near future, twelve-year-old Cora meets Adrien (and his wealthy family) at a grown-up party. Both children are neurodiverse: Adrien has ADHD, Cora is autistic, and they bond over a shared love of adventure and the feeling that neurodiverse people shouldn’t have to change what makes them unique to be accepted. Adrien’s father runs Pomegranate, a company that creates holograms to give its customers a chance to hobnob with celebrities and revisit loved ones — a concept that appeals to Cora, who would love to be able to interact with her recently deceased mother. But after a devastating accident, Cora discovers that Pomegranate has flattened Adrien’s neurodiverse traits to make him seem more neurotypical. Horrified by the “digital eugenics,” she makes it her mission to expose the corporation’s deception and cruelty, while coming to terms with her own perceptions of death and grief. Adrien and Cora are smart and funny characters who make relatable the work of navigating life in an often-unsympathetic world. McNicoll’s suspenseful story has a lot to say about what makes a person worthy of respect. SARAH BERMAN

From the March 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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