By Janet Tashjian
As a longtime autism advocate, I spend a lot of time thinking about diversity. My son Jake—who’s illustrated two of my series for Macmillan—is on the autism spectrum and also has a language-based learning delay, which has made reading especially difficult. But stories are so important to us that Jake and I found a way to improve his reading—and to help kids around the world be better readers.
When Jake was in fourth grade and books started getting harder (i.e., fewer pictures), he decided to draw his vocabulary words on index cards to learn them. Our garage is filled with boxes and boxes of these index cards with stick figure drawings illustrating words like “royalty,” “embarrassed,” and “military.” Friends would see the cards and laugh at Jake’s cartoons—not only because of his sense of humor but for the spot-on accuracy of how his drawings illuminated his vocabulary words.
As a novelist, I asked myself the quintessential writing question: What if? What if I wrote a novel about a kid who has a difficult time reading but still loves books and stories? What if Jake illustrated the novel with his stick figures? What if we could help other reluctant readers in the process of helping Jake?
My son and I collaborated on what would become My Life As A Book, which is now a series of seven novels in twenty-six languages. (My Life As A Youtuber is the latest.) It’s not the success of this middle-grade series that humbles me, however; it’s the can-do attitude of a kid with special needs taking control of his own learning process.
Over the past seven years, Jake and I have traveled the country doing author-and-illustrator visits to elementary and middle schools, talking to students about the different ways people learn. In our series, our main character is a visual learner, so drawing is the way he processes information. When Derek reads, he imagines the story as a movie in his head, the same way experts teach children with reading disabilities to picture stories. When we visit schools, I’m always amazed at the different ways people learn: kids with auditory processing issues, children with tactile and sensory concerns, or some kids who really need infographics to make sense of data. Diversity of learning is an important topic in education today, one that I’ve studied firsthand to help Jake make sense of and learn to process information in his own way. (My path to learning includes copious amounts of coffee and chocolate.)
Having a series that’s a staple in ESL and Special Ed classes—not to mention enjoyed by neurotypical middle-grade readers who just want a funny story—thrills me to no end. More important, it’s given my son purpose, along with a career doing something he loves. Sometimes working through things that are most difficult for us can lead us to discover not only solutions to our own obstacles but to other people’s as well. Great job, Jake Tashjian. You make me proud.
Janet Tashjian is the author of the popular My Life series including My Life as a Book, My Life as a Stuntboy, My Life as a Cartoonist, My Life as a Joke, My Life as a Gamer, and My Life as a Ninja, as well as the Einstein the Class Hamster series, illustrated by her son, Jake Tashjian. Jake and Janet live in Studio City, California.