While there are a handful of autistic characters in children’s literature, too many are written by well-meaning but stereotype-dependent authors—which means those characters often feel more like grab bags of autistic traits, and less like relatable autistic kids. Autistic author Sarah Kapit is taking on this issue by bringing a wide range of authentic autistic characters to her readers. We talked with her about her journey to being a published author, character building, seeing yourself in books, sensitivity readers, Neurodivergent Jewish families, and many other matters.
Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism (TPGA): How long have you known that you wanted to be an author, and what was the process to getting published like?
Sarah Kapit: I have wanted to be an author since I was a little kid. But at some point I decided that I didn’t have what it takes to write fiction. I pursued other things, getting a PhD in history. I tried to get a job in academia, but it’s extremely competitive and I did not end up getting the kind of job I wanted. That’s when I decided to try writing a novel and I discovered that I actually could write fiction.
The first novel I wrote will probably never see the light of day, nor will the second. The third book I wrote was GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN! and I knew from the start that it was special. I revised the book during Pitch Wars with the help of Mike Grosso, a wonderful autistic author. From there it was fairly straightforward: I queried agents and received offers of representation. Later, several editors expressed interest in buying it, and I was lucky enough to land with Dial Books from Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
TPGA: Can you tell us about your two (so far) books? Who did you write them for?
Sarah Kapit: I write for all kids, but I particularly hope that autistic kids and Jewish kids will find resonance in my writing.
My first book, GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN! is an epistolary novel, or a novel in letters. It stars Vivy Cohen, an autistic 11-year old who loves baseball. Vivy throws a wicked knuckleball, but fears that she’ll never get the chance to pitch in a real game. She writes to her idol, MLB pitcher VJ Capello, about her life and frustrations. Then, two very exciting things happen: Vivy gets recruited to join a team. And VJ writes back to her.
My next book, THE MANY MYSTERIES OF THE FINKEL FAMILY, is focused on two autistic sisters, Lara and Caroline. Caroline uses AAC [in this case, a speech generating device] to communicate. Lara, a mystery novel aficionado, starts her own detective agency with Caroline as junior detective. Their first mystery: Why did Dad burn the brisket for Shabbat dinner? In uncovering family secrets, the girls find more than they bargained for and must confront their relationship to each other.
This isn’t really a mystery novel, but more of a family novel. I love middle-grade books like the Penderwicks, and with the Finkels I wanted to write something in that vein—but with a Jewish and neurodivergent family. Most members of the Finkel family are autistic, have AD/HD, or both.
TPGA: Have you needed any accommodations during the authoring process (writing, deadlines, communication, promotions) and have the people you work with been understanding about that?
Sarah Kapit: I’ve been really fortunate to work with wonderful people in the industry who are very understanding and accommodating. When my mother died last year, my editor was very willing to extend my deadline and I’m sure she would do the same in other circumstances as well. In general, the industry mostly works on text-based communications, so that’s been a benefit. When I do have a phone or Zoom interview, my editors and agents and have all been understanding of the way that I communicate. (I’ve worked with multiple editors and agents in my publishing career, which is fairly typical.)
One accommodation that is important to me is that if I am going to do a public-facing interview, I really prefer to see the questions ahead of time so that I can prepare my responses instead of having to come up with everything on the spot. I’ve found people to be pretty good about that. I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Seattle Public Library. I gave an interview with them early this year in conjunction with winning the Washington State Book Award, and they were great. Not only did they give me all the questions ahead of time, they also consulted with me to make sure that I was comfortable with the questions and for all interviewers. with disclosing my disability during the interview. I hope that becomes standard
TPGA: Do you see yourself in your autistic characters Vivy Cohen, or Lara or Caroline Finkel? Have you shared some of their experiences, like being harassed by your peers—or in Caroline’s case, having adults assume you’re not capable of harassing your peers?
Sarah Kapit: I think all of my characters share aspects of me, but they are not me. I sometimes joke that Vivy is like me but nicer. I wish I were more like Vivy in some ways! Of my three characters, I’m the most like Lara—kind of prickly and judgmental!
Of course, I do draw on my own experiences in representing them. I did experience bullying, but not quite in the same way as my characters do. I also like to put in small quirks that are similar to me. Lara is a big reader and is obsessed with her favorite book series, which was very much like me at her age. (And my current age, really!) Vivy has similar problems with motor skills and spatial awareness as I do. I played soccer as a kid, and a very kind coach noticed that I don’t naturally run straight. Most other kids just run in a straight line when prompted to do so, but I went at a slight sideways angle—which, of course, slows you down. I represented that experience with Vivy. (Although she certainly has more athletic ability than I do!)
TPGA: I appreciate you showing how different two autistic kids can be in The Many Mysteries of The Finkel Family. But when it comes to experiences you haven’t necessarily had, what resources do you draw on? Specifically, how did you ensure Caroline’s experience as a non-speaking AAC user felt true?
Sarah Kapit: It was very important for me to represent Caroline’s experience correctly. I spent some time looking at different AAC apps while I was writing. After I had a draft, my publisher and I hired an AAC user as a sensitivity reader. Their feedback was invaluable. Mostly they told me that I was on the right track, but there were some suggestions they had for greater authenticity. They absolutely made the book better, and I highly recommend that writers use sensitivity readers when necessary.
TPGA: It was really lovely to see both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish characters in Finkel Family, especially within the same family. Can you talk more about bringing those nuances to the page?
Sarah Kapit: My family is Ashkenazi and Sephardic, so mostly I just wanted to represent that. My maternal grandmother, who was just everything to me, was Sephardic, and while I didn’t grow up with a ton of Sephardic culture I know that being Sephardic was important to her, so it’s important to me, too. I thought about what differences might come up in family dynamics: different foods, different Jewish languages, and incorporated them when it was appropriate to do so. A native Ladino speaker reviewed the Ladino phrases used in the book to ensure that they were correct.
TPGA: Can you talk about how the Finkels’ dad has ADHD, and why that is significant for someone who has autistic daughters?
Sarah Kapit: I think there’s a lot about the relationship between AD/HD and autism. I am not qualified to opine extensively on the subject, but anecdotally it seems like autism and AD/HD often pop up in the same families. My mother had AD/HD and experienced problems similar to what the dad goes through in the books. I wanted to represent that in a book. There are certainly challenges that neurodivergent families face, but I also wanted to show the strong bonds of love and understanding between them.
TPGA: Have feedback and reader reactions been different from what you imagined? Is it different from autistic and non-autistic readers, as far as you can tell?
Sarah Kapit: Reader response has been so gratifying! The main difference about autistic readers’ feedback is that they say they feel represented by the books, which of course is wonderful. Most non-autistic readers have had great feedback, too. However, I have had a few people say that they don’t think Vivy is autistic, and that does sting a bit. Why are your conceptions of autistic people so narrow that Vivy doesn’t fit into it?
Negative reviews can upset me, so I’ve tried to limit my exposure to possibly negative reviews. But I always love to hear positive things, especially from autistic readers who feel represented. Being tagged on Instagram or Twitter by a reader who gives even a two-word review makes my day.