Saturday, January 3, 2015

EWE AND AYE: My Unintentionally (But Not Accidentally) Autistic Picture Book

My fourth picture book, Ewe and Aye, has been published recently by Disney-Hyperion.  Illustrated by Stephanie Ruble, the flap copy sums it up nicely: "Ewe was a sheep with a feel for wheels.  Aye was a lemur with a thing for wings.  But it wasn't until Ewe and Aye found each other that things really got off the ground."

Although the characters, world, and publishers are different, Ewe and Aye continues charting a terrain first explored in my picture books, Ribbit Rabbit and Moo Hoo, a terrain of lifelong mystery for me-- that of relationships.

Ewe and Aye takes off (quite literally) from where the other two books left off.  If Ribbit Rabbit explores how to establish and maintain relationships, and Moo Hoo addresses how to develop new ones, then Ewe and Aye goes even further with the question of purpose.  Why relate with anyone at all? Why relate with this person more than that person?  And, maybe the trickiest question: What does a reciprocally meaningful and fulfilling relationship look like?

The answers to these questions are probably obvious to most people, or at least to non-autistic ones.  Even asking the questions themselves might seem irrelevant and unnecessary for those who are not on the Spectrum.  Keeping in mind, however, that part of what characterizes Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are social/communication deficits, then the need to ask these kinds of questions becomes more understandable.

(I must interject here that autistic people most definitely want to connect with others. The social mechanics of connection may mystify them, and their "connection language/empathic expression" may not be entirely decipherable to nonautistics, but they are fully human.  It's long past time to dump the "robotic/lacks empathy" lingo from public discourse).

When I wrote Ewe and Aye (originally Ewe and Aye-Aye), I did not set out to write an "autistic" book.  Looking back on it, though, I don't know how I could have written anything other than that.  Same with my son.  I did not set an intention for having an autistic child, but he is most definitely a part of me-- and what a gracious gift he has been!

Before I delve into Ewe and Aye's story specifics, I wanted to first comment on the story's origins.  It began as all of my stories do, in a sea of sound.  As evidenced on the notebook page below, I began
playing with the I/eye/aye/ai sound.  At the very bottom of the page, the you/ewe/yew sound makes
its first appearance.  A challenge to myself at the top of the page read, "Tell a story with one phoneme repeated over and over."

Yeah, I'm a sound hound.  But sound isn't enough.  The sounds have to be arranged in a pleasing pattern.  That's where the diagram below comes into play.  It is a rough visual representation of the narrative pattern of Ewe and Aye.  Once I've got the sounds and structure figured out, then I can listen for the story to emerge.

Invoking Noam Chomsky's linguistic concept of deep structure versus surface structure, I almost missed the "deep narrative" of autistic experience in Ewe and Aye undergirding the "surface narrative" of a sheep and lemur cooperating to fulfill a shared dream.  

It wasn't until I read an email from my editor late in the production process that the "aha" moment hit me.  He mentioned the need to strengthen the transition between the scenes of the pair working alone and the scenes of the pair working together...working alone, working together... alone, together.

That's it!

I went back and looked through all of the text and illustrations early in the book.  I saw two characters who spent a lot of time alone and were comfortable doing so.  Interestingly, the Publishers Weekly review even picked up on this, "Although the two animals are always supportive of one another ("When Eye got into trouble, Aye was there to help. And when Aye got stuck, Ewe came to the rescue"), each is strictly a solo act (Ewe prefers working with wheels, while Aye uses wings)."

I saw two characters with intense, focused interests (i.e., wings for Aye and wheels for Ewe) engaging in proximal, parallel play (see the illustration below).

I saw a friendship develop at the intersection of their passions.  I even saw a character, Aye,  a "wings" enthusiast, known for his "flapping," a self-stimulating behavior recognized as a classic trait of autism.  Although I never sat down to write an autistic book about autistic characters, realizing that I had was startling and affirming at the same time-- like observing my reflection in some kind of mirror of ultimate reality.  More than just seeing myself for the first time, I finally knew myself for the first time.

The opening line of Ewe and Aye reads, "Ewe and Aye were different."  When I first wrote that line, there was only one meaning: Ewe and Aye were different from one another.  Now, the meaning has expanded to include: Ewe and Aye were different from one another and from others.  

I think overlaying the one meaning on top of the other (for a "montage of meaning," if you will), renders a hopeful message to the autistic community: We are together in being different.  It's a message that respects the unique dimensions of each individual, while at the same time acknowledging that the individual exists within the context of a larger autistic community that can be accessed for mutual support and understanding.  

Connecting with this community can offer limitless possibilities.  To quote the last lines of my book, "And now together, there's nowhere Ewe and Aye can't fly.  Ewe and Aye.  We!"  Of course, the need for this kind of connection transcends neurology, making Ewe and Aye a book for all "wirings."

Related Posts: