The Big Idea: Michelle Sagara

This Big Idea post made me tear up a little. It’s partly because I’m a parent. But it’s mostly because of how Michelle Sagara explains how the understanding and kindness of the very young informed her new book Silence.


This book is about its dedication:

This is for the girls:


With thanks, with gratitude, although admittedly they might not understand why.

I am, as I often do, getting ahead of myself.

When I set out to write my first YA novel, I wrote it on spec. This came about because my Luna editor asked if I happened to have a finished YA novel just lying around (this is almost an exact quote). As I had two books due that calendar year, I emphatically did not have any finished novels, mostly finished novels, or even partially finished novels on my figurative desk.

But I had an idea for one that I’d been mulling over for some time. It was even a contemporary, which meant I had some hope of writing a novel that was short (for me). I’ve always been drawn to stories about grief, loss, and the ways in which people deal with both. I wanted to write a ghost story, from the point of view of a young woman who had just lost the first love of her life.

So I sat down to write Silence. I had some idea of who the protagonist was, but I often discover nuances of character while writing. The prologue and the first chapter were exactly what I envisioned. The second chapter started in the same smooth vein.

And then chapter two took an abrupt detour, veering in a direction that I hadn’t planned. I wrote:

At 8:10, at precisely 8:10, the doorbell rang.

“That’ll be Michael,” her mother said.

You could set clocks by Michael. In the Hall household, they did; if Michael rang the doorbell and the clock didn’t say 8:10, someone changed it quickly, and only partly because Michael always looked at clocks, and began his quiet fidget if they didn’t show the time he expected them to show.

Books have tone. They have voice. And I realized, as I paused at the end of that last paragraph, that I was about to veer wildly off-tone if I continued; that my careful, little paranormal would have an entirely different feel.

But I also suddenly understood where this new book was going. I understood, at that moment, who Emma was, and what had kept her moving during the almost crippling months of grief.

I knew that if I wrote this unexpected book, I was no longer writing a book that would be guaranteed to speak to the market – if any book can be said to do that with certainty – but I wanted to write this book. Because I could see the dedication, from that point on.

Let me explain why. I’ve had some experience with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) as a parent. I’ve experienced the difficulties school can cause – even an incredibly supportive school, which we were lucky to have. I witnessed firsthand my oldest son’s inability to parse social cues, and to miss simple things like people saying “hi!” with enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that waned when he all but ignored them. He didn’t hear; they didn’t know he couldn’t.

We are terrified, as parents, for our children; we are terrified that they won’t fit in, they won’t find friends, they’ll be made fun of, they’ll be isolated. Because my oldest son was diagnosed ASD (Aspergers at the time) I was prepared for this, but not less terrified, and it broke my heart to know that my son was terribly lonely when I could see the children in his class trying very hard to make connections with him. If I was present, I could point them out – but I wasn’t going to be present for most of his school day.

He struggled through two years of kindergarten with some limited success, and then came the full day of grade one. And in grade one, he met the girls. Yes, those girls – the ones to whom the book is dedicated. The teacher treated my son as if his behaviour was normal for my son, and at six, children’s ideas of normative behaviour are very flexible. The girls took their cues from his teacher that year, and perhaps with a different teacher they would have picked up different cues. I don’t know.

What I do know is this: My son hated the noise of the stairwell and his class was on the third floor, so he was required to use the stairs. He almost always entered dead last, when the stairwell would be mostly empty. On this day, (half-way through the year) he was trudging up the stairs, and the stair monitor, a woman of middling years, shouted at him.

He failed to hear her, so she marched up the stairs and shouted in his ear. And he still failed to hear her; he pretty much tuned out all the noise until he left the stairwell. I started to approach the stair monitor to tell her as much, and stopped as a young girl with platinum blond hair caught her by the elbow.

“He can’t hear you, you know,” she told the woman. “He’s daydreaming. He always daydreams when he walks up the stairs.”

She was six years old. She was six years old and entirely fearless when it came to correcting a much older and much larger authority figure. And she had done so without prompting from anyone. My son, of course, didn’t even notice. But I did.

She was part of a group of friends, and they kept an eye out for my son. They also came to his birthday parties from grade one through grade six, although by that time three of them were no longer in the same school.

When my son was in grade three, we took karate together. Karate made us late, and one night there was a school open house, so we went directly from the dojo, in our gis, to the school. We entered his classroom and found two girls there, and my son approached one of them – in his karate outfit – and started to talk.

The other girl said, with a sneer, “As if we care about your stupid karate.” This is the type of reaction I feared, as a parent, especially given that ASD children can go on for an hour about any topic that engages their interest.

But the first girl turned to her friend and said, “Well, I do care.” And proceeded to talk with my son about his karate progress. She was, of course, one of the six.

Did they spend their whole days doing nothing but babysitting my son? No, of course not. They spent most of their time socializing with each other. But they continued to keep an eye out in all the little ways that made my son’s life easier. I’m not even certain, these many years later, that they would remember the incidents that I remember so clearly and so gratefully.

Michael appeared at Emma’s door at exactly 8:10 in the morning.

And I thought: Why not these girls? Books are written about shy outsiders or social outcasts all the time; books are written about mean girls just as frequently, and often books are a combination of these two extremes. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But why not these girls? Girls who were best friends and who supported each other (often by phone even in the early years) and who, while having lives entirely of their own also had the compassion to keep an eye on an awkward ASD child? It’s a paranormal, it’s contemporary, but why can’t the story be about girls like these?

Silence is that book.


Silence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

47 Comments on “The Big Idea: Michelle Sagara”

  1. Wow! Those girls are the heroes we should trumpet in our society. The ones that make a difference in somebody else’s lives. I’m so glad to have read about their story.

    I’m going over to read your excerpt now.

  2. WOW.
    I already am a fan of Michelle Sagara, adult writer.
    And now, I cannot wait to review this one for the YA community. Thank you.

  3. As a mom of boy with some special issues, I loved that intro. My son has had some incredible friends who have been there since daycare and understand him. Let’s celebrate the kids who make the right choices and are the kind of people that we hope ourselves to be. Looked it up on Amazon and it sounds great. I just added it to my Amazon wish list.

    P.S. Also, I just love everything she has ever written!!!!

  4. Oh wow! As a parent (just ending 5th grade) yeah, am right there. My daughter’s had to learn a bit to be nice to folks who are different but it’s helped having one on one times with some of the kids in her school. It’s amazing how well kids do when there’s no crowd to worry about.

  5. I already adore her, and, as a parent of an ASD child as well, was touched and interested and nodding emphatically when she did a few posts about her son awhile back. This book makes my “must-have” list for certain, though I can see I should buy stock in Kleenex first.

  6. Your description of your son could so easily be of mine. From the helpful, though still difficult, school, to the classmates that keep an eye out for him, especially when those not in the know try to interact with him. I don’t usually pick up YA books, and almost never paranormals, but this is definitely going on my shopping list.

    Thank you.

  7. Things you need to know about this book:
    1. It’s not only about girls and their friends: it’s also about necromancy, ghosts, magic, and a great big dog.
    2. Michelle knows the differenct between angst and pain, between melodrama and grief, and she always deals with the latter.
    3. It’s extraordinary, and I want more already.

  8. And now I must buy this book and I am crying at work because my eldest daughter is that sort of girl. It’s one of the things I am the proudest of about her. She’s 7 and she stands up for others all the time and she watches out for her aunt, my sister, who lives with us, who also has Asperger’s.


  9. If your Big Idea post made me cry big and ugly, I have high hopes for the book. Just ordered the Kindle version and can’t wait to start reading.

  10. My signed copy is waiting at Bakka. Can’t wait to read it but I’ll have to read it with tissues at hand if the Bid Idea blurb makes me weep. I totally agree with Chris S’s points and especially #2.

  11. I ordered this months ago and already inhaled it, because I trust Michelle Sagara to write great books. I loved, loved, loved “the girls” and their relationship with Michael. Knowing why she wrote it that way makes it even better. I have a young daughter with an exceptionally high empathy rating who invented a complicated game and got all of her friends to play it at recess. The secret object of the game is to prevent the teasing and bullying of a younger, socially awkward girl. Yes, there are “mean girls” everywhere. But there are also girls like these.

    It probably sounds like there’s an echo in your Whatever, John, but: Wow.

  12. I’m not a big fan of paranormal in general, and wouldn’t normally pick up something on the basis of a blurb about communicating with the dead, but I am a big fan of Michelle Sagara (the “Cast” series in particular), and so was willing to give it a shot. While very different in tone and setting from her other books, it shared a depth of character and vivid interactions between the characters. I enjoyed the book as a whole and particularly loved Michael and the way the girls looked out for him. That’s not what the book is about directly, but it’s one of the things that takes it out of the realm of generic YA paranormal.

  13. Years ago in my first year of teaching kindergarten I had a boy in my class, Philip, who would most likely be diagnosed with ASD now. But this was thirty years ago when such children were just labeled emotionally disturbed. Michael and Natalie were also in that class. And they were much like the girls Ms Sagara describes. They hovered just withing reach of Philip ready to shepherd but not smother him. I cannot speak for Phillip but as for me, I considered them a godsend. And maybe they were, Michael, anyway. He passed way in fourth grade of a brain tumor, two years after Phillip was successfully placed in a program that was very beneficial to him.

  14. I also inhaled this book immediately when it came out. My son is a little younger than Michelle’s, but with the same diagnosis and ways of interacting with the world – that bit about “ASD children can go on for an hour about any topic that engages their interest” fits like a glove . All Michelle’s characters are always so real that I feel I know them and any one of them could walk in any minute. I wish those girls had been around for my son when he was little – heck, I wish they would/could walk in now.

  15. If ever there will be a cure for the world’s ills, it will be compassion. Thank you, Michelle; glad to make your acquaintance.

    Thank you, John. Yes, it generates some eyeball sweat, this one.

  16. Damn but I need to buy this book. Not sure I’ll let my wife read it, though. As the parents of a highly functioning ASD-diagnosed boy, this one might hit too close to home.

    I think I’ll leave it on my nightstand and wait to see if serendipity (or another power) moves her to pick it up….

    John, thanks for much for running these Big Ideas pieces. I learn about so much read-worthy stuff this way!

    Off to order …

  17. This post and some of the comments are making me cry. I hope I can raise my daughters to be like “the girls.”

    Did you ever tell their parents about what they did? Because my god, hearing that my daughter did that would probably be one of the best moments of my life.

  18. This made me tear up, too. I’m so glad these girls get a book. I am about to purchase it for my own girls now (11 and 8), and they can read it… but not until after I do.

  19. @countrouble We were really lucky, and know it. It’s interesting, because my son at 18 can see more clearly the ways in which the interactions affected his early school life; he can see the ways in which it was unusual. At the time, not so much.

    @angelanhunt I’m enormously grateful for girls who are like yours.

    I think it’s easy to focus on the things that hurt our children–it was, for me, because I’d never felt as helpless in my life. The problems weren’t my problems, and I couldn’t just walk out the door and fix them. There were children who would have been happy to make my son’s life miserable – and I had to really struggle to hold on to the fact that they would have existed no matter who my son was.

    But there were also the girls. They were easily as formative; they were proof that it wasn’t all people, just some. And sadly, the life lesson that some people are jerks is one no one gets to avoid – so I tried very hard to focus on the opposite: that some people are kind. (And also that some people are jerks when they’re having a Bad Day, which his mother certainly did.)

    Thank you all so much :)

  20. Beautiful. I’m glad for your son’s guardians. I’m thankful for kindness in our own school. We live in the same world.

  21. @Rob McDonagh Yes, there are girls like your daughter. When the alpha girls are kind, things fall in line in a really obvious way. My son was certainly sensitive to bullying when he saw it, and often intervened on behalf of the children being bullied (although, in typical fashion, we’d hear about it from his teachers later).

    @Cloud I was incredibly effusive to the parents I did meet; I think one mother found it slightly confusing. Her daughter was the most socially aggressive. She would say ‘hi’ to my son, and he would fail to hear her. The first greeting was friendly & cheery. She would then give him The Look and repeat her ‘hi’, in a slightly less cheery voice. And then, the third time, she would smack him and say, “I said hi!”

    He would look up, startled, and say, “Oh, hi.” He had failed to hear her the first few times, of course. I’m not sure she could quite believe that he failed to hear her, but once she had his attention, they would interact perfectly well. I saw this about a dozen times before my son turned ten; she was the least patient, but the most determined.

    She sat near him in grade four, and my son – at the end of a long day – pretty much shut-down. I had to bring something to his teacher one afternoon, so I waited until class was letting out. I walked into the class and stopped, because she was asking my son, “Did you remember your pencil case?” and he said “Yes.” Yes was his word for “I can’t process now, please leave me alone”, so this caused some confusion. She asked him the question three more times, and then finally said, “Then what is that???. And pointed.

    The pencil case was, of course, sitting on his desk instead of inside his backpack. He sighed and picked up the pencil case and put it in his backpack. Otoh, because he could make mistakes like these, she was perfectly willing to ask for his help in math, because someone so lacking in any organizational skill was incapable of making her feel stupid.

  22. Wow. Thank you for sharing your son’s story. It gives me hope to know that there continue to be young people like this in the world, exemplifying caring compassion in the simplest and most important ways.

  23. i don’t normally read YA books. i’ll be reading ms. sagara’s because of this ‘big idea’ piece. thanks for allowing her the opportunity to let her readers (potential and definite) glimpse a piece of her life and creative process.

  24. Thank you for this book. Not sure I have the strength to read it right now or that my daughter will, but my Phoenix, her son, is 4-1/2 and has autism. He is high functioning, but misses social cues at times and does not always relate. I pray that he will find his own tribe to cushion his way thru, just a little bit. Thanks so much.

  25. Thank you for the wonderful introduction: I went directly to purchase it using one of the links at the bottom.

    This thing of being able to read an intro, written by the author, and targeted for whatever this audience is (you and me and everyone who reads these Big Idea intros) is a -wonderful- thing, and has caused more book purchases.

  26. It seems that my 9 year old daughter and I will be vying for who gets to read this first when the order arrives. Thanks for the piece – it has introduced at least half of my household (though that’s only because the boys haven’t read this Big Idea yet) to a new author.

  27. Bought it on my Nook, read it (gulped it down) and then turned around and re-read it. It is a wonderful read. I adored Michael and, this was a surprise, Amy. Because I’m also a merchandise manager at a B&N, I ordered in a three copies and since two of them are already spoken for I think I may have to get in a few more.

  28. Just an amazing piece. Not much else to say. We could all use support like that, but we rarely seem capable of giving it.

  29. I read this a week or so ago and found it to be a very delightful book. The big idea and how it moved through the story changed the interactions of ‘the girls’ and made it feel different than ‘yet another urban fantasy’.

  30. I’ve loved Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra series, and the story related in this Big Idea article made me get all misty-eyed (for a number of reasons) even though I’m not a dad.


  31. This was a beautiful, touching post and makes me want to go seek out this book! I am glad your son has these girls in his life, and they are lucky to have him in theirs.

  32. I rarely if ever leave comments on any website ever, but that is one of the most touching things I’ve ever read and I just had to say something. I’m not a parent and have no experience with ASD, but wow. Those girls are amazing.

    I don’t tend to read much YA fiction, but this is one I’ll be picking up. Thank you!

  33. I admit that I rolled my eyes when I read that this entry made you tear up a little, because, well, because I’m kind of a jerk that way, and I roll my eyes when people say things like that. But this line–The other girl said, with a sneer, “As if we care about your stupid karate.”–Goddammit. (Horrible vemon directed at a young girl deleted, but fervently expressed in my head.) THAT is why to this day the thought of talking to a stranger makes me wobble, because for the first few years in school, it seemed like every time I opened my mouth, someone like that was right there to stomp on my head. I don’t think I’ve got any ASD-related issues; I was just overly sensitive, and my first instinct was always to ask not “What’s wrong with that jerk?” but instead “What’s wrong with ME?” Eventually I learned that the best thing to do was to dedicate myself to never being noticed, and that lesson still plagues me. There are times when I encounter a special act of kindness or generosity, and wish I could send a note to the cosmic HR Department to direct them to make sure nothing truly awful ever happens to that person. Those girls are treasures, and I hope they continue to bless the world with their presence for many decades to come. So, yeah, this entry made me tear up a little.

  34. I loved this Big Idea. Hung on every word, right until the end. I’m definitely checking out this book.

  35. Oh. I read Silence last week and I loved it because of this normal group of girls who took care of Michael, I loved how incredibly romantic it sounded, how beautiful and wonderful that this group of girls watched out for him through the years. And now to know that the story was modeled after a real group of girls in your son’s own life makes me want to cry. Lovely.

  36. Parent of a boy on the spectrum, here. In tears at the office. Just bought your book, and thinking so hard of the boy two blocks down who, years ago, ignored my boy’s tics and confused, blank expression when he approached him and asked him to play football with him, anyway.

  37. Bought this soon after the post went up. Cried my eyes out more than any other book of Michelle’s. But I’m now a parent of a soon to be four year old and a five month old infant and still full of new mom hormones. Will practice fire drills with my son soon too! (I can totally see him behaving the same way as the four year old) Her live journal posts also taught me to really listen to my son and try to understand how he is processing his environment. It’s fascinating to watch a new human being emerge, though a bit frustrating after the thousandth “why?”

  38. This book was WONDERFUL (despite all the crying I did on the plane while reading it last weekend, with my almost 1 year old asleep on my lap and my 6 year old beside me). I am really looking forward to book two. I think this is the best book that Whatever has introduced to me.

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