Saturday, October 24, 2015

Brains are Different: Gail and Clay Morton talk about WHY JOHNNY DOESN'T FLAP

Gail and Clay Morton are known for wit and kindness, and that combination is front and center in Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap:  NT is OK!, a satirical picture book. 

Its narrator deals with a puzzling neurotypical friend who can’t follow a schedule, doesn't arrive at play dates exactly on time, and is obsessed with social interaction.  But the narrator learns such oddities can be tolerated:  Johnny’s way of interacting with in the world really is OK.

Gail and Clay, members of a neurodiverse family, were generous enough to speak to me about their new book, which was released on October 21.

What prompted you to write Why Johnny Doesn't Flap: NT is OK!?

Why Johnny Doesn't Flap appears to be a children's picture book about neurological difference.  Some reviewers seem to have assumed that it is intended for children, and Amazon even gives the recommended age as 5 and up!  That's been pretty funny to us because we saw the whole appeal of the book to be its ironic humor, which a child of that age could not possibly appreciate.  We intended it as a satire on children's books about autism, which, though well-intentioned, always end up being condescending.  Even as they call for tolerance of autistic behaviors, they make it clear that they consider those behaviors bizarre and wrong.  So we were poking fun at those books, aping their style and subverting their conceits.  That said, we have found that different readers have different takes on the book and can get something meaningful out of it that we did not intend.  And we see no reason not to consider those reading valid.

Reviews of your book note that you flip our culture's usual pattern:  your narrator is positioned to grant understanding and acceptance to the neurotypical.  Why do you think this point of view was important?

You know, we could flip that question around and ask, why is the other pattern usual?  Why do people with high-functioning autism have a disorder while non-autistic people are "normal?"  You could point out the difficulties people with autism often have functioning in the world, but isn't that because the world is set up for neurotypical people?  If it were set up for people with autism, then the neurotypical people would have problems functioning and would be considered disabled.  H.G. Wells understood this basic idea back in 1904 when he wrote "The Country of the Blind."  So flipping the pattern is important because it shows that these standards of normalcy, which we take to be natural and inevitable, are actually social constructs -- subjective and culturally relative.

What was it like writing a book together?

The divorce papers have been filed.  [Laughter.]  No, no, it was actually pure joy.  "Writing a book" sounds so grandiose; this work is a grand total of 1,253 words, so it's not as if it involved a lot of actual writing.  We wrote the first draft on a school bus while chaperoning a field trip.  In general, Clay has the words and Gail's input is conceptual, but not always -- Gail did the writing on some pages, and Clay had the ideas for some pages.  With a humorous work like this one, the important thing is seeing what makes someone laugh, and we have always been able to make each other laugh, so working together was ideal.  It was just like any other day.

What was the most surprising thing about the process of writing and publishing this book?

The most surprising thing was that it got published!  We felt like this was our own private joke and that no one else would get it.  As we said, there has been some of that, but when we received feedback from the editors at Jessica Kingsley Publishers, it was clear that they understood both the humor and the more serious message behind it.  Even the changes they recommended made it clear to us that they knew exactly what we were doing.

Why present these ideas in the guise of a children's book?  What does the form offer both the writer and the reader?

The simplest answer is that it was a funny idea: pretending that neurotypical (NT) children are unusual and that their behaviors need to be explained in the same way that autistic behaviors are so often explained in children's books.  We even included a sardonic "Note for Parents," which says things like, "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 67 in 68 children may be neurotypical -- it is truly an epidemic!" and "NTs are people too, and the fact that they are different doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with them."  There is some comedic shorthand here.  People are familiar with those kinds of books, and so they get what we are parodying.

But more importantly, we wrote the book for our son and others on the spectrum who are a little tired of being painted as the "odd" ones who must be "tolerated" or "accommodated."  In reality, our son spends most of his time "tolerating" and "accommodating" the absurdities of the NT world.  Why have a schedule at school if you are going to disrupt that schedule every other day?  Why require students to attend a pep rally that, for some of them, will be an excruciating assault on their senses?  These practices really make no sense, but he must tolerate and accommodate them.  So it's a kid's book that provides our kid's perspective and, in doing so, validates that perspective.  When he looks at it now, he laughs at the situations he recognizes from his life.  We hope that later, when he is older, he will look back at it and see that we never thought of his cognitive and behavioral style as being wrong or in need of a cure.  As for parents who do see high-functioning autism that way, we hope that this book will at least make them question their assumptions about the relative merits of their child's uniqueness and the "normal" ways of thinking and acting.  

Why Johnny Doesn't FlapNT is OK! is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.  It is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Gail Morton is a Public Services Librarian at Mercer University.  She holds an MLIS from the University of South Carolina – Columbia and has worked in academic libraries for twenty years.  As part of the Southeastern Native Documents team, she received the University of Georgia ASSET Award.
Clay Morton is Director of the Honors Program and Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia and is the author of The Oral Character of Southern Literature and various scholarly essays.

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