Speak Up by Rebecca Burgess

Twelve-year-old Mia is just trying to navigate a world that doesn’t understand her true autistic self. While she wishes she could stand up to her bullies, she’s always been able to express her feelings through singing and songwriting, even more so with her best friend, Charlie, who is nonbinary, putting together the best beats for her. Together, they’ve taken the internet by storm; little do Mia’s classmates know that she’s the viral singer Elle-Q! But while the chance to perform live for a local talent show has Charlie excited, Mia isn’t so sure. She’ll have to decide whether she’ll let her worries about what other people think get in the way of not only her friendship with Charlie, but also showing everyone, including the bullies, who she is and what she has to say.

Harper Collins

Rebecca Burgess draws comics about their experience of autism and sexuality (check out HOW TO BE ACE as well), honestly and unpatronisingly for younger readers. There’s also a sharable comic available on their contact page called UNDERSTANDING THE SPECTRUM that should be read by any adult that works with autistic young people. I asked a few questions about SPEAK UP!

Are you as passionate about music as Mia?

I do really enjoy singing, I take part in a local show choir every week! I also, similarly to Mia, use music and headphones to get through noisy situations, such as travelling or shopping.

Mia’s Mum has found the worst kind of “advice” online and her telling Mia to, for example, hide her stimming, made me very sad & angry. I hope plenty of parents like her read this book, but have you any advice for young readers on how to respond with that (wrong) approach?

I think the first response is to really, not let any shaming from others get to you. Be proud of yourself, and if something is making you feel calm and happy then it is a good thing, no matter how much an adult might try to convince you it’s not. On a more practical level, if a younger reader is able to communicate their own feelings about something, I think they should try and share with a caregiver about how they’re feeling- most parents use behavioural therapy because they’ve been told by others its helpful. If they knew it was making their child unhappy I think most wouldn’t use it. If a young reader is not taken seriously or cannot communicate very well, trying to find other voices that can communicate what you want to say- such as books or articles from autistic adults might be helpful.

Have you had any feedback from young readers or done any live events?

I haven’t had any direct feedback from younger readers, but I’ve had lots of happy parents telling me that their kids are loving the book and reading it all in one sitting, which is amazing to hear! I’m hearing especially good feedback from parents of autistic kids (this has been my experience with all of my books and my web comic). I think other autistic people probably feel the same as me, and so barely see our own personal feelings in a story, that when we do see something we genuinely relate to we just end up becoming obsessed with it!

What do you want neurotypical readers to take from the book?

There’s a lot of stereotypes around autism, and also a general belief that our lives are somehow ‘sadder’ than other people’s and that our lives need to be ‘fixed’. I want neurotypical readers to get a broader idea about the autistic experience, and also have a chance to read a happy fun story about being autistic rather than a sad serious one!

Will we meet Mia & Charlie again?

Yes! I’m currently writing and sketching out the second book, which will explore more issues around being an autistic teenager and just a teenager in general! It’s scheduled to be published in 2024.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I normally have several books on the go at once haha! Right now I’m reading ‘Neveda’ by Imogen Binnie, ‘Tokyo Revengers’ by Ken Wakui, and just read last night ‘Margaret’s Unicorn’ by Briony May Smith.

Neveda is a very inward looking drama about being a trans woman, I think I’d recommend to anyone wanting a very personal, honest sharing on some more common experiences within the trans community, or if you are just looking for very clever writing!

Tokyo Revengers has all the key storytelling elements that makes Japanese comics so popular and influential the world over, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting an insight into this specific style. Its pacing and art is cinematic, the story is a page turning thriller, and the characters are full of heightened emotion. I keep gasping out loud in dread/anticipation at the end of each volume and then immediately ordering the next volume, which is essentially what all good Japanese comics are hoping you will do.

Margaret’s Unicorn is a beautiful picture book. I love everything by this author/artist and can’t get enough of her work. I recommend this to anyone who wants to cultivate in their kids a love and appreciation of nature and the British countryside, or just wants to stare at some beautiful art for hours on end!

Thank you Rebecca for answering some questions for TeenLibrarian.

SPEAK UP! is out now from HarperCollins.

By Caroline Fielding on December 4, 2022 · Posted in Graphic Novels, Interviews, MG, Reflecting Realities

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