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.