Silence, Michelle Sagara

On Thursday, I talked about John Scalzi’s new book Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, but what I didn’t mention in that particular post is that many (many) of the books I review here are found at his site in a section called “The Big Idea.” I usually remember to link over there whenever I’m talking about one of “his” books, but I thought I would mention it again so that those of you who have only recently started following me have the opportunity to make the connection between John Scalzi, the sci-fi author, and John Scalzi, the extremely popular blogger.

I’m not obsessed (and after this post, you’ll get a break from my incessant nattering about him, I swear), but I am a cult-like follower of The Big Idea posts. He gives authors an opportunity to write about what has motivated them to create the book they’ve recently had published, and after reading those posts, I’m usually 80 percent sold already. I wouldn’t say that I click-through and buy every single one of the titles, but it’s close. Even if I don’t end up purchasing a book I’ve read about there, I always enjoy finding out what the authors have to say, and I suspect that many of you, as writers yourself, would love to be asked to do such a thing when promoting your book. There’s always so much to say that doesn’t fit into the story itself, amiright? What I’m trying to point out here is that while Scalzi does these authors a great favor by giving them the space to talk about their books, he also does his readers a service by showcasing the story behind the story.

And I’m a sucker for what’s happening behind the scenes. I not only like to watch novels come alive, I like to know who’s pulling the strings and why. I tried to find a way to sum up for you why Michelle Sagara (you may also know her as Michelle West or Michelle Sagara West) has written this wonderful book the way she has, but I’ve failed. Her entire interview is too necessary, too essential to what makes this story take up such a large place in my heart for me not to share it with you. So please, take a minute and go read it. (If you don’t, the rest of the review probably won’t make as much sense as it would if you just clicked through. Just do it!)

Done? Great. Are you teary-eyed yet, because I don’t want to be the only one; I’ve been getting weepy way too often recently and my street cred’s gonna take a hit if I don’t get that under control. But in this case, I can’t help it. One of the hardest and best parts of my job when I taught preschool was working with families whose children were on the Autistic spectrum. The director of the school where I taught in LA used to put as many of those children as she could in my class every year, in fact, because even though I never had formal training for working with them (beyond what the incredible therapists, aides, and parents shared with me), we were like magnets, them and I. (I think she figured they might as well be on my roster since we always seemed to find each other anyway.)

In my life outside the classroom, funny enough, I am not known for my patience. My friends and family would probably say I’m one of the least patient people they know; however, I’m also, against my will, one of the most empathetic (seriously, you trying being an emotional sponge and tell me it isn’t against your will), and that made me a strong match for those children. Even if they couldn’t talk to me, or look me in the eye, or function outside of a routine or in a chaotic environment, I felt like I had the ability to wrap a little piece of myself around them to keep the calm.

It didn’t always work, of course. Nothing always works. But it worked enough. Those children were happier at the end of the year when they left my class than they had been when they entered in the fall, and I still remember every single one of them even when memories of my other students have begun to fade. I just loved them so much – loved how quirky and silly and honest they could be with me. Plus, I got to ease, for a short while at least, some of their parents’ fear, and their grief (oh, the grief that looked out at me like rage and confusion and frustration and exhaustion, depending on the hour or the day). Somehow, Sagara has taken that feeling I used to get when I stared into the naked struggle occurring in both child and family, and she has turned it into a book where both a high functioning Autistic boy and the fiercely kind girls who are his friends are the heroes.

And it’s about more than the challenges of being different – it’s a true adventure, as well as a struggle through the grief of losing too many people far too young. It’s a patient book. It’s compassionate, but it’s also real. The awkwardness of family was so real, in fact, that I wanted to wait outside while her characters had it out. I don’t know quite how she does it (honestly, I was constantly surprised by how deeply in love with this book I was even as I was reading it), but I think a lot of what’s great about her writing is in its pacing. She doesn’t rush through what’s important; instead, she savors the hurt right alongside the reader, and when the characters triumph in some small way, the reader does too.

I’ve never read any of her other books, but I swear, if they are even half as powerful as this one, I’m a fan.

Check out Michelle Sagara here. (Sidenote: her publicity photo is completely adorable and it makes me want to hug her.)

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