Today’s picture book is an interesting combination of love-of-the-ocean and neurodiversity.
Meghan Wilson Duff, PsyD, wanted to be a marine biologist when they grew up, but got distracted trying to figure out people. They currently teach in the Psychology & Community Studies program at University of Maine at Machias. Prior to teaching, Meghan worked as a clinical psychologist supporting children and families. This is their first children’s book. They live in Machias, Maine. You can learn more about them at their website.
HOW ARE YOU, VERITY? is Meghan’s debut picture book. It tells the story of Verity, a child who is confused about social niceties. Their brother explains that “How are you?” is a polite greeting, not an invitation to inundate listeners with ocean facts. This leads to an experiment with neighbors and when a field trip to the aquarium is canceled, Verity doesn’t know how to respond when their brother asks that same question. Is he just asking to be polite? What is the correct response when they are so upset? This is a touching look into the mind of a neurodivergent child and how confusing social niceties can be to someone like this. And I LOVE the ocean facts about odd creatures included all throughout the book (and the resolution–NO spoilers!). The illustrations by Taylor Barron are also spot on, chock full of little details you have to look for. This is a book that works well on multiple levels.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? How long have you been writing? Have you always wanted to write a picture book? What brought you to this book?
Meghan: I’ve always been a reader, but struggled to write even though I was a “good” student. Writing books is a Mt. Everest challenge for me rather than a lifelong dream. Two recent things paved the way for me: 1) participating in my region’s National Writing Project program and 2) joining the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I recommend both.
I took the Maine Writing Project’s Teacher-Consultant classes when I was preparing to teach composition for the first time. The National Writing Project is, at its heart, a peer professional development model for writing and teaching writing. Working with a bunch of people who also love teaching, writing, and reading is very energizing and inspiring, and it was a lot of fun. We practiced and learned together, and by the end of the courses, we each had a submission-ready professional nonfiction piece and a submission-ready creative writing piece, as well as a ton of ideas for the classes we teach. That was my first experience in a critique group and writing fiction (with any intention of someone else reading it).
My crit group from that program didn’t last beyond the summer, but I was hooked and wanted to find a home crit group and writerly community. That is why I decided to join SCBWI. My picture book crit group assembled on the SCBWI discussion boards during the pandemic. We’ve met monthly for over two and half years and added a monthly meeting for mentor text/craft study.
I figured I would start with picture books. Ignoring board books for a moment, starting with picture books seemed like starting at the beginning. Picture books are also a good fit for me because I remember being that young pretty well.
Me: I don’t think I’ve seen another picture book about a neurodivergent child obsessed with ocean life but unable to pick up on social cues. What gave you the idea for this story?
Meghan: How Are You, Verity? is based on my experience. The people and events in the story are fiction, but Verity’s desire to share and talk people’s ears off about what they are interested in, their love of sea life, and not realizing “How Are You?” is often just an automatic greeting is my experience. I wish I had an older sibling like Verity’s brother.
I think of Verity as most relatable to autistic/AuDHD/ADHD people because of their perspective, interest, and info-dumping. Usually, A/A/A neurodivergent kids get the message that being who they are and doing what is most obvious to them is disruptive, inappropriate for socializing, and unwelcome. It hurts to hear. Many kids, like me when I was little, will bear that as quietly as they can and do their best to please adults they care about or blend in with peers. I wanted a story where the main character could get the feedback that not everyone had the same social expectations, not feel ashamed because they didn’t realize it, and have a happy ending.
If anyone wants any further reading related to this, read more about the Double Empathy Problem, monotropism, and info-dumping. These are terms from the wider autistic community used to describe familiar experiences in a more accurate way than professionals from outside the community have historically characterized autistic people’s experience.
Me: This is your debut picture book (yay!). What does your writing process look like?
Meghan: I think I’ve figured this out. There are two parts: 1) the scattershot scribbling of ideas and fast drafting (without editing or thinking too hard) and 2) taking an early draft and focusing on developing it, which is a longer process that goes slower than I would like. These are two really different activities. Sometimes I have energy for one but not the other, and I had to learn to get over wanting to edit and revise while writing and just embrace the chaos of getting down possible ideas, even if many of them don’t get further developed.
Beyond my crit group, I’m on Inked Voices and frequently join pop-up groups (a crit group that convenes for one round of manuscript feedback). When I can, I take advantage of paid professional feedback (usually associated with SCBWI events). I also was Teresa Robeson’s Queer Kidlit mentee a few years ago. Now, I’m on the other end of that program, helping with the 2024 reboot of the Queer Kidlit Mentorship. Stay tuned for that. We’re figuring out the dates for 2024.
At this point, writing one new story per month, I have:
- How Are You, Verity? coming out this year
- 1 Revise & Resubmit in the works
- 5 stories ready to query or submit
- 5 solid stories, but I’m getting more feedback on and polishing up
- Many rough first drafts that I may or may not every work on again
- A ginormous list of story ideas with notes
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Meghan: I was surprised by how much publishing is hurry-up-and-wait (months to years) and how hard it is to manage multiple projects at different stages. Also, I thought signing a contract would be THE moment it all became real, but that moment is like the horizon. [I think I jammed in three things that surprised me instead of one.]
Me: It’s incredibly unique to find neurodivergent characters in picture books who are nonbinary. Why is this something you want young readers to see and hear about?
Meghan: I’m nonbinary. When I was younger, that term was not used, so I didn’t have a way to explain/understand why I was constantly coloring outside the lines that everyone insisted were so important, yet I struggled to even keep track of them. Autistic people as a group tend to have a higher proportion of LGBTQIA people than allistic (or non-autistic) people as a group, too. Nonbinary kids need more representation, including in stories that don’t revolve around gender.
Me: I loved the illustrations by Taylor Barron. I love all of the colors and textures she uses. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Meghan: Seeing Verity and their world come to life through Taylor’s initial sketches all the way through the finished book was the best thing about the whole process. I’m pretty aphantasic, so I don’t have any sense or expectation of what the characters and the world would look like. Seeing her work was like getting to meet them for the first time. I loved all the sea life in its forms: details woven into the background, book illustrations within the book, and the stuffed animals in Verity’s imagination. And the way Taylor used water in each spread to include Verity’s imagination was very cool. I can see kids wanting to read it again and again just to look closely at the illustrations, especially if they love sea life.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Meghan: I wish you patience and persistence, a solid crit group, and fortitude and self-awareness to know your capacity so you don’t spread yourself too thin. I wish this for myself too, regularly.
Find your community. Kidlit folks are a supportive bunch.
That is great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Megan.
Dear readers, this book was released just last week. If you haven’t had a chance yet to track it down, you may want to do so. There are many reasons to read the book, but among others, as Meghan said, the happy ending is well worth reading.