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Unpacking Tokenism & Disclosure In ‘A Boy Called Bat’
Sharing this post on social media? Use this image description to make it accessible. [Image description: Illustration from ‘A Boy Called Bat’ by Elana K. Arnold & Charles Santoso. Bat smiles as he braids his sister’s hair while his father and sister watch a sportsball game.]
2023 Update: Since the publishing of this review, author Elana K. Arnold has come out as Autistic. Thanks for letting me know. However, this doesn’t negate any of the subtle ableism – internalized or external that readers need to be aware of when reading this book as an attempted neutral portrayal of autism.
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When we’re complicit in ableism even as we try to fight it
I loved reading this book. My autistic kid loved this book. Both of us saw various parts of Bat’s story in our own lives.
But there is this one thing that nags me about it. Actually, not nags so much as makes me furious and seems symptomatic of the way the cultural majority view folks with mental disabilities as a whole.
Isolating Kids With Disabilities Through Silence
My Autistic kid keeps asking when he can meet other kids like him. We all want this – to connect with others who share a common identity.
I want to tell my kid – you have autistic friends! You have people to celebrate and commiserate with! You can let down your guard, stop performing for allistic folks when you’re alone together. You can be yourself. You can ask questions and talk about it with someone your own age!
But I can’t. Because these autistic kids – their parents won’t tell them they are autistic.
This is so very lonely for him – and for his friends, too. How many autistics, who seek human connection despite our social disabilities, are banned from connecting in deep, honest friendships, held back with the bigotry of allistic caregivers?
Silence = Shame
Here we have yet another literary equivalent of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. An attempt to normalize and destigmatize disability and help readers connect with an Autistic protagonist – while unable to utter the word ‘autism’ without shame.
As we’ve discussed over in How To Start Talking About Race & Why We Need Explicitly Gender Creative Characters in Kidlit – refusing to admit we see targeted identities doesn’t erase the bigotry they face. Denying what we know just further silences us and makes kids wonder: If the grown-ups won’t talk about it – is there something bad about being this way?
Again – we both loved this book. But I asked my kiddo old why he thought an allistic* author would write such a wonderful story centering an Autistic kid, and then conspicuously fail to include the word ‘autism’ anywhere in the book.
He suggested Bat’s autism will become a big reveal in the second book. (Which, spoiler: is true, although using a disabled identity that way grosses me out so I’m setting my expectations low).
My kiddo knows about silence – how people with power use it to maintain inequity. He cast his eyes down and thinks a minute, about all the ways Bat is like him, but how Bat’s family never speaks about his identity with pride.
For reference – as a inter-racial & inter-abled family, we affirm our family identities regularly to counter messages that we are deviant or lesser than the monoracial cisgender allistic the media defaults to. The anti-racist and anti-ableist families with targeted identities affirm their family identities and dedication to anti-oppression loudly and often.
So he knows what silence leads to. He says, quietly – “I don’t like that. Because they don’t say it.”
You might also like: Silence is Violence: Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege
Who benefits from silence?
Why can’t we just be clear and up-front with kids? What are we afraid would happen if Bat and his family said the world ‘Autistic’ out loud, and without shame?
Are we afraid allistic folks would reject Bat – unable to connect with him as the other? In which case – THEY CAN DEAL. Allistic kids are capable and obligated to get uncomfortable in breaking internal bias against folks with disabilities.
Are we afraid Autistic folks would flip out if a non-robotic, stereotype-releasing reflection gave them black-and-white confirmation that we are valuable and worth centering in a story not about autism?
If Arnold profits off appropriating our identity* (and she does – this is a successful book and I can find no mention of profits directed to #ActuallyAutistic people) – the least she could do is confront that allistic discomfort as a worthy cost for our validation.
*2023 update: Person raised neurotypical, with the privileges and presumptions of competence and internalized bigotry that come with all that. At the time of writing this article, Arnold did not identify as Autistic and wrote this book under the auspices of writing about the perspective of ‘the other’ specifically for neurotypical children- which is an intentional act of ‘About us, wtihout us’ style appropriation and does not retroactively undo that, regardless of good intentions. If she were to write a book about her OWN experiences as a white adult-diagnosed autistic, and not with the intention of writing another person’s story, that would be a different matter.
You might also like: Why We Need These Explicitly Gender Creative Characters In Kidlit
The (fake) problem with labels
I get the fear that labels can be weaponized by bigots. If you hate, really hate pink shirts, it’s gonna be hard to see past a pink shirt to the full, complicated person wearing it. And if everyone you love hates pink shirts and the blights on humanity who wear them – and then you’re forced to wear one yourself – well, that’s some Kerry Magro-level internalized shame and ableism right there.
No one wants to be reduced to a label or a diagnosis – and this seems to be the biggest argument against labels. You know what though? If we get down to the roots of the problem, labels are not what are hurting us – bigotry against people with those labels does. Let’s stop blaming the labels, because we need them, temporarily at least, to navigate and start dismantling that bigotry.
Labels can help us situate ourselves. They help us find others like us so we can share our experiences and validate our challenges. Only on reflecting on multiple voices can we figure out – what parts of my life come with my identity, my neurology, and my culture, and which parts are just me as an unique weirdo?
So do we…ban pink shirts? Pretend we’re not wearing pink shirts? Do conversational gymnastics to avoid acknowledging the pink shirt in the room? Tell our pink-shirt wearing friends they one of the good ones or proclaim how woke we are because we have children with pink shirts ourselves, and love them despite that!
Or do we talk openly about why everyone hates pink shirts, how it’s basic nonsense and bigotry, and give folks the freedom to be how they need to be without shame so we can all get through the damn day?
You might also like: Anti-Racism for Kids 101: Dismantling The Colorblind Fallacy
‘Autistic’ is not ‘Broken,’ so stop implying that
And don’t even get me started with the parents of my kid’s unambiguously autistic friend at school. Those parents who rejected requests for 1-on-1, parallel-play, accommodation-eager playdates and requests to connect outside of class with: He’s autistic, so he doesn’t do playdates.
As if being autistic immediately and forever shuts us down from human connection and friendship. As if a playdate can only look like what an allistic parent envisions – two allistic kids… I dunno, doing small talk and staring contests?
Sounds nightmarish – no, autistic friendships are ones that the autistic kids get to define, a space where accommodations are celebrated as the norm, not treated as extra burdens.
Both these caregivers who refuse to change the world to suit their autistic kids, and those who keep their kids in the dark about who they are – they see autism as a challenge to hide. A flaw. They don’t want to say ‘Hey, here’s why people are so confusing for you, and why you have trouble in school. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just cause you’re wired a little differently and the world is not built for you.’
They won’t utter the word ‘autism’ because they equate ‘autistic’ with ‘broken.’ They’re assuming all people carry that same stigma and bias against neurodivergence and they don’t want to say “You’re broken.”
Truth though – we only see ourselves as broken when we’re not given an explanation for why things are easy for everyone around us, and only difficult for us. We only internalize bias when we’re taught that disability is something to be ashamed of, to whisper about diagnosis-that-must-not-be-named in hushed tones.
And then years later – we eventually learn we are our family’s Voldemort.
“Surprise kiddo! We knew why you wrestled with feelings of inadequacy, failure, and alienation this whole time – we just didn’t want to tell you (so you could learn about it and how to deal). Even as we claim we you are great – you should probably keep this part of you a secret, because ewww gross, someone might thing you have a ::hushed tones:: d*sability!”
“We wanted to wait until we could negate your challenges and efforts with the next step of erasure, when we could claim ‘I don’t even see you as disabled! I don’t see the obstacles our culture builds for you and I don’t wanna acknowledge or help you navigate around them!'”
Bat’s parents are lying to him
I can’t help but wonder – though we are privy to Bat’s internal thoughts and desires, why does he never once mention his identity as an Autistic multiracial Asian surrounded by allistic white folks? Cause as an Autistic multiracial Asian surrounded by monorcial allistic folks – it’s basically impossible to avoid reminders of our otherness, to ruminate on how our identity affects how we move through the world.
My guess? (And honestly the only answer that makes any sense.) Bat’s parents refuse to empower him with the labels he needs to figure out how he fits in the world. They’re relying on the protection of whiteness and allistic-passing to protect Bat’s racial innocence and avoid hard conversations.
Bat doesn’t know he’s Autistic. I’m not even sure he knows he’s Asian. Who benefits from that?
(Not Bat. And not BIPOC Autistic readers).
You might also like: Stop Lying To Your Kids About White Supremacy (And Start Examining Your Whiteness)
You don’t need know labels to reinforce stereotypes
Refusing to speak our labels out loud doesn’t protect us from shame, stereotypes, or spotlighting. Others know there’s something different about us. But without some framework to explain it, peers and authority perceive autistic traits as off, weird, cold, rude, disobedient, aggressive.
And those who do know – those teachers privy to IEPs, those students who have a passing concept of neurodiversity (but not what it’s called or how it’s not a bad thing ) – those folks are still reinforcing stereotypes about us even if they don’t have a language to hang those stereotypes on.
Without space to contrast and compare the non-monolithic ways we spin off a shared identity – the folks who get to be one of many tend to…label our quirks as a monolithic part of our identity.
How over-representation of white boy savants harms us
Imagine a cultural phenomena where speaking BIPOC autistics and feminine autistics have to navigate life without a proper diagnosis. Where our autistic traits are labeled as ‘an Asian thing’ to avoid eye contact, or just ‘she’s over-sensitive and shy because she’s a girl,’ or sensory meltdowns as ‘hysterical PMS-ing.’
You’re a little neurotic and the only Asian in the room? WELL, I guess all Asians must be neurotic! Funny how goofy assumptions like that create exponential challenges for multiply-marginalized folks. Kids don’t have to have a label for ‘Asian’ to see racial categories and how we’re sub-categorized as separate from white kids.
Bigots don’t have to know our labels to attribute our neurodivergent traits to their perceptions of us the other, preventing us from understanding ourselves – further distancing us from the accommodations and adjustments we need to get through the day and seek badass disability-justice in the world. All under the weight of knowing each mistake or personality quirk further stigmatizes our entire race and gender.
As for representations on autism – this book reaches farther into showing that we’re not robotic, unfeeling monsters. But it’s an incomplete checklist playing into the kind of young white boy aspie stereotype that harms all autistics. In the real world, if Bat wasn’t so wealthy, masculine, and white, I doubt he would have been able to obtain a diagnosis or accommodations at all.
You might also like: Making Friends Is Hard – Books For Kids Who Feel Left Out
What is Acceptably Autistic?
Bat doesn’t seem to have any executive functioning disabilities, and his sensory disabilities are mainly relegated to occasional auditory annoyance and an aversion to being touched or looking people in the eye. This all feels a little reductive. And it feeds into divisions of functional usefulness – where those of labeled ‘high’ functioning can be harnessed as helpful worker bees for capitalism, and those of us labeled ‘low’ functioning are disposable. Not only is this just a really shitty eugenicist view of humanity, functional language is a tool of abled supremacy that only serves to harm and deny the rights of disabled people and the framework has no basis in reality.
Throughout the book – Bat’s family and teacher gives him opportunities to stretch himself – a far cry from the wild vacillations of allistic anger when we fail to perform, or the soft bigotry of low expectations. The pace of Bat’s story is much slower than real life – more patient, a linear and paced utopia free of the real world’s non-stop onslaught of sensory and social demands.
Bat’s caregivers provide him with the tools and resources he needs to wait, to accept non-closure, to wrestle with his frustration and anger without any actual meltdowns. A model boy for The Good Kind of Autistic, the mascot dragged out under the guise of disability rights, which really only serves to further oppress Autistics who can’t, or refuse, to comply or be of use to abled folks.
Bat’s life is a curated Instagram story. Which only serves to make me (and I fear – my kids) feel like we’re somehow inadequate for failing to find or create this slow, routine utopia where we, too, can be perfectly allistic-friendly and self-controlled like Bat.
Racial Tokenism & Yellow Face
I suspect this book was written for white allistic readers. Partially because almost all stories are – even the ones featuring a disabled character of color. But mostly because as we search for responsible reflection for our family’s multiracial Autistic identity, Bat’s story serves to further other us even as we cling to this rare, distorted funhouse mirror for glimpses of proof that we matter.
And I get that Arnold wanted to tell us we matter – I’ve fallen into that same trap of trying to provide representation for folks denied a positive reflection, even on this website! But intentions don’t matter if accomplices are not willing to do the deeper work of not just telling targeted people they matter, but showing that the experiences and things that matter to them, matter to us too.
This feeling – of what it’s like to be invited to the party as a show of diversity, while we’re expected to assimilate and behave culturally white and allistic. Where we’re allowed to visually represent, but never to openly discuss our differences and the challenges that come with being the other out loud. Where white friends insists we attend parties to be the Visible Asian Friend That Proves The Host Is Not Racist, but turns down invites to grab some char siu bao or stinky tofu in a quiet, sensory-friendly lunch. This smells like tokenism.
The author physically describes Bat’s family as interracial white/Asian. (Or Pacific Islander, it’s hard to tell under such ambiguity. I’m going with Asian cause that’s my wheelhouse and my kids see their faces reflected in Bat’s.) The ‘Tam’ surname name is also Asian, but just ambiguous enough that the author can walk back any backlash if it turns out featuring an Asian protagonist causes white reader discomfort.
You might also like: Delicious Kids Books That Dismantle Anti-Asian Racism
When we take the pop-culture benefits, but leave the fear and consequences
This is Firefly-style orientalism ( I hear echos of the Tam family, the whitest Asian family in our post-racial dystopia!) White creators get to keep the marketability of whiteness, but reap the orientalism, exoticization, and objectification of actually Asian people, our family names, and the physical attributes we’re mocked for.
rnold makes a point of describing Tam family’s physical description, reduced to racial hallmarks of pigment and hair texture. It almost feels like it was dropped in as a 3rd-draft revision, like she wrote Bat’s story and later decided to switch him from white to ambiguously-Asiatic last minute.
Despite the dark hair and Dad’s epicanthic fold, the entire family codes as white. The way the parents engage with the kids and other adults, the family’s goals and values, the way there isn’t a single delicious nod to non-white cultural practices. It’s just yellow face – an afterthought to add ‘diversity representation’ marketing keywords to a book written by white folks, for white folks. Bat’s Asian heritage isn’t baked into the story from the foundation – it’s just frosting in a few lines about his pigmentation and illustrations.
So does that make it less tokenizing if the illustrator himself shares Bat’s racial identity? I feel like – still not really? Similar to that token Asian friend white folks use to defend their racism – the illustrator has no hand in building Bat’s home environment or family dynamics. Santoso can make the frosting look great. He can add a lilt in Bat’s father’s eyes to add a tiny glimpse of ourselves. A few square inches on a page – one rare space where we belong. But he doesn’t control the meat or message of the story – one that rests entirely on a foundation of whiteness.
Nothing in Bat’s experience addresses the intersecting challenges facing us when we’re multiracial, Asian, and Autistic in a white allistic supremacist society.
He looks like my kids. But at the end of the day, Bat probably keeps his shoes on when he walks into the house.
#NotAllMen Masculinity In Bat’s Universe
I harp on the subtle issues on this book – but still there’s some nice stuff in there. This is the far cry from the toxic masculinity of Alvin Ho, the most famous disabled Asian boy in kidlit. Alvin has selective mutism, he’s also a shitty, ageist, ableist, colonizing misogynist and the author is unapologetic in celebrating and normalizing his behavior for young readers.
Honestly? I’ve been searching for stories of Asian boys who demonstrate healthy masculinity for years, and it is very, very hard to find Asian protagonists who celebrate and validate those aspects of healthy masculinity we need to counter misogyny, casual rape culture, and Asian men using Asian women as footstools to survive white supremacy.
It’s also, bizarrely, a deep swerve from the author’s Damsel, written (I am baffled by this) for kids just a little older than Bat. Don’t read it – you will never get those brain cells back. In that story, all men are no-good-evil-rapists (bad apples!), all women are weak, selfish, and complicit in the subjugation of women (yay victim blaming?). And, holy crusty jellybeans, that clumsy plot, with a ‘twist’ ending was saw coming like a Karen with a return receipt. I needed that ending to be a restorative catharsis to make enduring that whole damn book worth it. But instead Arnold just slaps the reader the face with the most deeply unsatisfying and yet shallow 90’s white riot-grrrl ending. It’s white feminism + punitive justice on steroids. Both of which, as we know, are just another feather in the hat of white supremacy.
Damsel is the faux-feminist novel parents point to and proudly proclaim “MY son isn’t like that! He would never harm a woman!” and to their daughters: “You brought this on yourself.”
I’ve gone back and forth checking and double-checking the clumsy plot and writing of Damsel against the artful, gentle compassion and flowing story of Bat. How on earth were these written by the same person? I need to outline this for you, cause I know this is sparking your need to disaster-read – I read hundreds of books every year and Damsel was by far, the worst book I read in 2019. Learn from my suffering. Just cause the white lady gatekeepers of publishing barfed it out, doesn’t mean we have to consume it.
It’s not bad apples – it’s a poison tree
Bat, in comparison, features multiple kind and gentle men. I do wonder if Arnold realizes these men too, can be complicit in rape culture. I know lovely, wonderful, caring men who have coerced and used their gender privilege to sexually assault women. Guys just like the men in Bat’s life, men who would never intentionally hurt women. Bat, in fact, does say something that makes a girl in his class uncomfortable. And he never takes responsibility for it or attempts to make amends.
I’m not a particularly sneaky, nor resentful of women who rise (although I do get…irked by white women who steal & re-publish my work for profit) – but I know that I have more learning to do to support and uphold survivors of assault. Rape culture is like white supremacy – we’re all complicit.
It feels like the author segregated all the bad guys and dropped them into her high-school novel, and all the good guys and dropped them into Bat’s universe. Neglecting to realize that we are all one complex people and that good guys can do some really harmful, violent things if they’re (we’re) not careful.
So we celebrate Bat as a rare example of healthy masculinity – not just in Bat himself, but his peers and mentors. Even Bat’s Dad, who’s a bit of an a dick, still cares about his son and is doing the best he can. But just… be careful not to play into the exceptionalism of #NotAllMen as we navigate and reclaim this landscape of masculinity.
Navigating Shared Custody & Divorce – with an autistic spin
Bat’s parents are divorced, and the story touches not on the same-old moping about a divided family, but on how shared custody stresses Bat out. High five!
As a child, I was shuffled back and forth over the weekends between my parents, sometimes without warning – and forced to deal with constant transitions and disruptions. This exacerbated what my already a shaky social disabilities and barring me from weekend social life with budding friends in school (and by extension, basically any hope for deep friendships).
I appreciate that the author addresses how Bat faces additional logistical problems in shared custody, but she treats this like a mosquito bite, when really it’s a cesspool of complex trauma and anxiety. Shared custody, although often necessary, is hellscape for autistic kids who need routine. While unavoidable, Arnold was unrealistic in suggesting that this constant vacillation in living arrangements, and most importantly – values and rules, is something he can just learn to shrug through.
Remember – Bat’s dad, like mine, is Asian. And his mom is white. Autistics have trouble understanding and performing to the unspoken expectations and social norms within one culture. Having to code switch between two separate cultures, toggling rapidly between the two, and having to figure out which code to use third spaces where your parents aren’t around is intensely, intensely difficult for third-culture kids. Even allistic ones.
Pressure to perform as Acceptably Autistic
Bat, however, handles this with a few interior grumbles and passive acceptance. I mean – I did too – because I had no other choice. And the consequences, for me, have developed into some serious mental health issues. (Obviously not just moving back and forth, but it’s certainly a contributor and I’m still wrestling with the effects of quiet compliance training through these kinds of experiences 30 years later). But should this be the model we expect kids to follow? Why must Bat remain a polite model minority?
Why isn’t Bat ever given a space to fully own his anger? Why is the premise of the story – here are the ways in which Bat complies. Everything works out and he gets what he wanted, because he worked hard and stayed calm (bootstraps!)
I really hope in the follow-up books, Bat finally gets to lose his shit and own his justified anger. (We can do that in a healthy way!)
I hope he experiments with refusing to comply – with demanding that the world start adjusting to his normal, instead of the other way around.
Also worth thinking about…
Oh also there’s a nice underlying message that even stigmatized animals have the right to life and humane treatment. And the relationship between Bat and his sister feels warmly antagonistic but ultimately loving and strong.
But you’ve had enough of me, and probably don’t have the patience to sit through me infodumping on animal rights, speciesism, and the conundrums of human intervention in wildlife rehabilitation.
So I’ll just point out hat those aspects are there. High fives.
You might also like: Influential Kids Books Featuring Capable Disabled Characters
Parenting is Praxis: Practicing anti-speciesism & supporting animal rights
These conversations have to go somewhere. We can’t just read a book for ‘awareness’ and consider our work done. How can we turn the topics we introduce and discuss in A Boy Called Bat into action?
Since this is supposed to be a book normalizing autism – let’s focus on Bat’s hyperfocus on animals, rather than his disability. Actions our family engages in to support animal rights & anti-speciesism.
- Open discussion: We’ve been honest and open about where dairy and meat comes from, and the consequences for the animals we exploit. As a result, our 6-year-old advocates for a pescatarian diet, we’ve switched to plant-based milks, and we’ve changed the entire family’s dining habits to accommodate that.
- Support through climate change: During a long drought in the hottest summer on record, we set out bowls of water for local wildlife in our back yard, toad habitats, and leave overgrown plants undisturbed in no-till landscapes to support burrows.
- Decolonizing the land: We’ve been pulling invasive plants and planting native species to support the diet of local wildlife, including important native species most people kill – such as wasps, and isolate invasive or destructive bugs and animals (keep your kitty cats indoors, friends! They are devastatingly invasive assassins!)
- Mindfulness & consideration: When we had a pool, we installed a escape ramps for critters & insects to prevent drowning. We place screens and safeguards around our rain barrels to prevent small animals and pollinators from drowning. And we drive at the speed limit to prevent hitting animals while driving, of course.
- Make time for care: When we come across animals who have been harmed (seagulls hit by cars, orphaned squirrels, poisoned mice dying a slow agonizing death), we cancel our plans, bring animals to wildlife rehabilitation centers, or stay with animals and/or keep them as comfortable as possible while they die. We keep towels, boxes, and cages on hand for when we come across animals in need of care.
- Neighborhood action: I might have been known to steal a cat or two who have been neglected or used for kitten farming, provided medical care from that neglect, and then re-homed them with people who are not pieces of shit.
No seriously though FUCK YOU, people who exploit and neglect animals.
- Financial contributions: Donating to local no-kill shelters for food and medical care. That’s an easy one if you’ve got $5.
- Leave no trace: We leave no trace in open areas, pick up litter in our neighborhood, and use biodegradable cleaning chemicals to protect wildlife in our rivers and oceans.
- More: Find 40 more ways to help wildlife in your backyard
This is your go-to book for…
- Kids who are into animals and wildlife rescue.
- Breaking some of the more virulent autistic stereotypes, such as myths that all autistics don’t speak, are savants, or don’t have feelings or show compassion.
- Validating a narrow slice of autistic identity (masculine, speaking, wealthy, white, with no co-morbid disabilities)
- Normalizing autistic protagonists in books not about autism.
- Unpacking tokenism & yellowface with kiddos.
Discuss: “Bat is physically described with East Asian looks and drawn that way too – why do you think the white author chose to describe his coloring, without acknowledging his Asian identity?”
With our Asian kiddos: “Do you feel that Bat’s family acts like ours? What assumptions, behaviors, and actions reveal their Asian culture to you? Which feel culturally white?”
- Unpacking white & abled fragility with kiddos
Discuss: “Why do you think the author was afraid to label Bat’s identities as Asian or Autistic?”
“What assumptions was she making about how we empathize with openly Autistic people?”
I’d read this in rotation along with…
This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. We need to bring this conversation back to kids from multiple angles. net as free downloads.
Here are books and other resources that continue that conversation. Get them from your library, or your local indie bookstore (Bookshop.org supports local indie stores if you’re self-isolating during the pandemic).
- Understanding The Spectrum – A Comic Strip Explanation, by Rebecca Burgess, an autistic artist living in the UK.
- The West Meadows Detectives – Narrated by an openly, unashamed autistic protagonist. The author of this book took great care to consult with and give credit to an #ActuallyAutistic consultant with expertise in early-childhood development. Allistics authors, pay attention >>THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT!!!<<
- Dragons In A Bag – Another chapter book centering healthy masculinity (disclosure: Zetta Elliott is one of our Patreon supporter and we’re in cahoots!)
- Quick-reference Bookshop list: Kid’s Books Celebrating Neurodiversity
- Quick-reference Bookshop list: Non-Shamey Guides for Autistic Kiddos
You might also like: 5 Things Every Kid Should Know About Disability: Raising Anti-Ableist Kids
Is this #OwnVoices?
Author: Elana K. Arnold (she/her)
Illustrator: Charles Santoso (he/him)
I’m like 99.8% positive Arnold is not Asian or Pacific Islander based on her photos, author bio, and the way Bat and his family are described visually as ‘dark haired’ but code as culturally white.
While Arnold doesn’t specify if she’s autistic or whether any of the people she consulted with are autistic (WHY NOT, ELANA?), she treats Autistic identity carefully and respectfully, even if it’s only surface-level.
I’m moderately familiar with Arnold’s other work – both Damsel and What Riley Wore – which are at best clumsy, and in the wrong hands, actively reductive against…well everyone she’s hoping to amplify. So I find it very hard to believe an #ActuallyAutistic adult (or a secondhand from an allistic expert who listens to Autistic adults), didn’t have a bit influence on the editing process on Bat – which is handled with detailed care and graciousness. Befuddling why Arnold wouldn’t have credited any out & proud Autistics or the Autistic community for that assistance, as I would have given her SO MUCH CREDIT for allistic humility and amplifying #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs.
On whether Arnold is Autistic herself – I’m pretty sure an #ActuallyAutistic woman (and an avowed ‘feminist,’ at that), growing up through the erasure and male-washing of autism, would have cringed at the idea of adding yet another Autistic white(ish) boy to the exclusion of Autistic women in media representation. But then again, girlfriend is wrestling with a lot of internalized sexism based on the nonsense in Damsel, so who even knows. IT’S A JOURNEY, I GUESS.
Santoso, however, is Asian or Pacific Islander (based on both his name and photos), and Bat and his dad are clearly modeled after Santoso’s own likeness.
How we calculate the overall awesomeness score of books.
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