YA for Everyone: Hilary Reyl's Neuro-Diverse Romance

Sarah Harrison Smith on December 20, 2017

ReylCover.jpegHilary Reyl’s young adult novel, Kids Like Us, begins with a 16-year-old boy riding a train through the French countryside. There’s 

something engaging, but unexpected, about the way he narrates his experience.

One minute he’s referring to himself as “you,” the next, he’s “me.” And when he falls in love at first sight with a strawberry-blond French girl, he says, “Even though she was wearing modern clothes like me, we recognized each other from another time and place.” 

The story that unfolds is of a very bright, handsome boy on the autism spectrum who sees the world through the prism of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. We spoke to author Hilary Reyl about how she came to write this funny, astute, and touching novel that should appeal to readers of any age.

Amazon Book Review: Tell us a little about Kids Like Us.

Hilary_Reyl-5792-final-2.jpgHilary Reyl: It’s a neuro-diverse romance between a boy from California named Martin, who is on the autism spectrum, and falls in love with what we call a neurotypical girl. It happens over a couple of months that he spends in France, where he is with his mother, who is a film director shooting a period movie at a chateau in the French countryside.  Martin is fluent in French because his father is French, but he has never been to France before. Not only is this his first time in France, it’s his first time in a high school that’s not for special needs kids.

Living in France has special resonance for Martin because he’s fascinated by one of the great works of French literature. What’s the source of that fascination?

One of the most interesting things to me about the way that people on the spectrum can learn language is that they often have a narrative prism through which they see the world. They do what’s called scripting. They will literally repeat a movie, screenplay or book in order to describe their experience.  

Martin’s obsessive prism is Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which he simply calls Search. Part of his attachment to the book is as a link with his absent father. He was extremely close to his father, who was his primary caretaker and gave him the novel as a way to help him navigate the world. And now, as readers will discover, his father is no longer in his life and so Proust is the way back to him.

The other thing about the Proust is its sensuality. Martin is acutely sensitive. And Search is the perfect book for him because its narrator himself is so painfully sensitive too. It’s a book that makes sense to Martin on a deep level.

Martin thinks Proust’s character Swann is autistic. What makes him believe that?

As I was rereading Swann’s Way to write the Kids Like Us, I thought, wow, Swann doesn’t feel anything directly. He can’t love directly. He falls in love with a woman because she reminds him of a painting and a piece of music.  He “recognizes” places from landscapes in art. He’s at an aesthetic remove from life. He’s a fascinating character. Martin tries to recognize himself in Swann. But he comes to understand that Swann is “stuck,” unable to truly connect -- whereas Martin learns that he himself can connect.

Back home in California, Martin’s friend Layla, who also has autism, feels a similar attachment to Downton Abbey. But Downton is a TV show, a far cry from Proust.

I wanted to show this in a gently comic way. Layla has some interesting things that she can script from Downton, especially about human behavior around class and glamour, but Martin’s script is endlessly rich and deep.

Do you have personal experience with autism?

My youngest daughter is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and watching her come into language has been one of the most moving and beautiful experiences of my life. Seeing her learn to speak deliberately rather than intuitively has been like taking the face off a clock, and it’s given me so much respect for her. So even though this book is not autobiographical, the seed for Martin’s voice is my respect for my daughter. She’s still very young. I got Martin’s voice in my head when she was barely three, quoting her picture books back to me in the most intelligent and creative ways.

The other thing that I would say is that Martin’s parents’ reaction to having a child that’s so different from them is an exploration of my own feelings and experiences. A lot of the questions that they raise are questions that I’ve raised to myself.

Martin’s mother has a hard time accepting the ways he is different, doesn’t she?

I think she wants him to be happy, but her idea of happiness is not his idea of happiness. While she knows this intellectually, she can’t help herself from projecting. She’s such a social person and derives such energy from bringing people together in her films. Because she loves Martin desperately, she can’t not worry that he’s not like her. We all have some of this in us, especially parents, this shock that our kids are not us…. Martin’s father may be lost personally in some ways, but he is naturally more accepting and more optimistic about Martin’s ability to be happy as himself.

Were you at all concerned that the references to Proust might go over the heads of some YA readers?

I feel strongly that one should not write “down” to YA readers.  They are curious and omnivorous.  The main thing to know about the Proust for Martin’s story is that it is about a boy who is hopelessly in love with a girl. After that, the reader can engage on many levels.  For some, Search is simply the book that Martin is obsessed with because his dad gave it him and he carries really strong impressions of it in his mind.  Some are intrigued and want to know more.  Some are annoyed, and that’s fine with me because obsession is often annoying.  I love Proust, but sharing my love is not necessary for connecting with Kids Like Us.

Your first novel, Lessons In French, was for adult readers. How did the experience of writing Kids Like Us for the YA market differ?

I think when you are writing for teenagers there’s more of a sense that you are in conversation with them than when you’re writing for adults. When you’re writing for adults, you put your work out there like a piece of art. It’s more finished. A YA novel is a kind of a question; it’s part of a dialog. Kids read so intensely and personally and they really want to talk to you. The whole culture around YA books is interactive. I just love that.  Kids Like Us is a living thing.

How have readers on the autism spectrum reacted to Kids Like Us?

I was very nervous about that at first, because I am not an expert on autism and did not want people to assume I was trying to take on that role. But so far, the reviews by people on the spectrum have been wonderful. I haven’t had one single person say, “Who the hell are you to write about us?” I have gotten lot of support for writing a romance, because there’s this wrong idea that autistic people can’t connect. I tried really hard to think about whether autism is a disability or is an alternative way of being in the world. I don’t believe there is a clear answer.

In a scene where Martin says “Mom, what if I was gay? Would you want to cure me?” his mother realizes how unintentionally brutal she has been and is appalled at herself. But then his sister says, “It’s easy for you to spout stuff about neurodiversity when you are high-functioning and could almost pass for nothing more than quirky. Do you honestly believe the really autistic people, the ones in diapers who bang their heads against walls, would advocate for themselves to stay that way?”  It’s complicated.  And so many autistic advocates and bloggers are engaging with the subject in fascinating, illuminating ways.  I do not have answers, but I am lucky to be part of the conversation.

You don’t use the word “autism” until almost 100 pages into the book. Why did you choose to wait that long?

One of the things that the autistic readers are liking about Kids Like Us is that Martin is both typical and atypical. He scripts and he “stims” to calm himself sensorially but he’s also very good at sports, which is uncommon. I wanted to make Martin a person first and have the reader sense that he was on the spectrum but not have that define him. I hope the reader will love him as a character first.

(Photo Credit: David Jacobs)

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