by Audrey Fisch
At the NJCTE Fall 2019 conference, we inaugurated a new tradition – the authors’ breakfast. More than 10 local and regional authors gathered to socialize and share their work with NJCTE members and conference attendees. It was a wonderful new event, initiated by NJCTE Board Member and Fall Conference Co-chair Denise Weintraut.
At the event, I had the great privilege to speak with Hilary Reyl, author of Kids Like Us, published in 2017 by Square Fish/Macmillan. She gifted me a signed copy of her novel, which I had the great delight of finishing on a recent cold evening. I know that many NJCTE members share with me the feeling of wonder and delight of meeting an author and marveling at their ability to create a moving, compelling universe in the words of their text. Beyond the pleasures of the classroom and the work we do with our students, surely this is one of the great delights of our roles as teachers of English.
Let me recommend to you, then, the world of Kids Like Us, the brilliant and deeply satisfying work of Hilary Reyl. The novel revolves around Martin Dubois, a bilingual, autistic young teen who finds himself navigating a “general-ed” school and a constellation of neurotypical kids in France while his filmmaker mother does her work and his sister prepares for medical school and navigates a break-up. Martin is also processing the loss of his father to prison and navigating a long-distance friendship with Layla, his best friend from the Center, the special school for kids on the spectrum they attend together in Los Angeles.
Martin processes life through the angle of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; his friend Layla has an “affinity” to Downtown Abbey. They and their peers at the Center use affinities as a “portal into real life,” and so Search, as Martin calls it, functions as a kind of ur-text, the prism through which he makes sense out of everything and everyone.
It’s a marvelous conceit, and it functions perfectly well even for those who don’t know (or have forgotten, like me) their Proust. We watch as Martin falls for a girl who to him is Proust’s Gilberte, and we see him navigate how Alice (Gilberte) is and is not a magical Proustian character. Martin makes his way in this world, coming to recognize his strengths and weaknesses as an autistic person, and to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the people around him as they do and do not successfully navigate the complex social interactions of the world.
Along the way, Reyl gently raises some fundamental questions about whether the therapeutic model in relation to people on the autism spectrum needs to move away from cures and normalization. Martin, at one point, asks his mother if she would be okay if he were gay and then spells out the analogy for her: “I think the point is that we don’t need to be cured, like gay people don’t need to be cured.” This thoughtful, provocative moment in the novel, however, is in no way strident or pedantic. Instead, what makes the novel so charming and moving is how it allows the reader to journey alongside Martin, and in so doing celebrate his growth and success at making friends and finding love at his general-ed school.
Kids Like Us will, of course, be compared with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Reyl’s novel, however, unlike Mark Haddon’s, is young adult literature at its finest. The novel is first and foremost focused on the young man at the center of the novel. Reyl needs no greater drama than the struggle of a young man working to find his voice and place in the world. Martin, like the protagonists of many great YA texts, comes to understand and appreciate what makes him unique and to connect with and empathize with his peers.
Along the way, of course, readers do the same: We come to understand and appreciate what makes Martin and Layla unique and special, but also what they have in common with their neurotypical peers, also struggling with anger, emotion, and a complicated world of class, adults, beer, and kissing.
Thanks, Hilary Reyl, for bringing me into that world for the space of the novel (and beyond). Thanks to all the wonderful authors who so generously came to the Fall 2019 NJCTE conference and shared their work with us. And thanks, Denise Weintraut and NJCTE, for making all of this happen and bringing me together with more great authors and books.