Good Different (Meg Eden Kuyatt)

Reviewed by Kate Champlin

I think this book may have actually changed my life for the better. This is a typical coming-of-age story with one twist: 13-year-old Selah’s journey of self-discovery involves identifying her autism and learning to live as an autistic person in a world built by neurotypicals. Over the course of the novel, we discover that Selah’s mother and grandfather are also on the spectrum and that both have learned to deal with the neurotypical world in very different ways. The book’s general message is that self-acceptance brings peace. I appreciated this message as a disabled (but non-autistic) person, and autistic readers will appreciate it too.  

I also loved that the book is directed toward pre-teens. There’s a marvelous scene in the book where Selah and a friend visit FantasyCon. Selah knowingly meets other people on the spectrum for the first time at the conference. These adults freely share information about sensory aids such as earplugs and gummies and about resources such as thinking putty. Selah finally gains the courage to read the first of her poems through these meetings. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s The Future is Disabled talks about the need for disabled role models to show younger or more recently disabled people that they “could be disabled like that.” It’s wonderful to see Selah encounter her first (recognized) role models at FantasyCon and  to watch Selah continue to explore herself through computer research when she gets home. As Selah says in a poem written after that weekend:

A brand-new world
opens up
through my screen. 

I take notes
save links feel
poems burst inside my chest
like fireworks. 

I am full
of possibilities— 

I can do more
than just hide

It’s even better that the book performs the same service for autistic middle-grade readers that the adults at FantasyCon perform for Selah. The book will help these young people to appreciate their neurodivergence as an identity and provide them with information about resources. The end of the book even includes advice about computer communication programs and finding the correct weighted blanket: 

If you get a weighted blanket, please make sure it is the correct weight for your size.

To discuss the book’s potential effects on other teenage readers, I need to discuss Jamison’s theory of cognitive mapping. Jamison suggests that books help readers to connect their experiences to the experiences of people around the world and to create “maps” of global systems. His example is global capitalism. However, literature can also provide maps, or at least models, of experiences or identities that readers don’t share. In the case of experiences or identities that the mainstream media says little about, one or two books may be the only models that people know or to which they may become exposed. Every book that depicts trans people as mentally-ill or mentally-ill people as dangerous provides a bad map. Readers often act on these maps because they don’t have access to other information. 

In contrast, Good Different is a good map, and it may well be aimed at the two groups who need it most: teenagers on the spectrum and their neurotypical classmates. Often, children can either be horrible bullies or remarkably accepting, and age 13 is around the time when peer pressure frequently hits the hardest. This book may provide people who would otherwise reject their autistic classmates and provide them with more accurate models – models (and maps) that will help them to accept and understand instead of behaving or believing otherwise. Noelle and Addie, an old friend and someone who initially upsets Selah through her lack of boundaries, provide the most direct models of this approach toward acceptance—and empowering solidarity, through allyship and accompliceship. Teenage readers will remember that they “can be an ally like that” when they’re given the chance to act as allies.  

More than anything, though, I loved this book just for what it is. I love that the book is written in verse. I love that these poems both show what happens to Selah over the course of the novel and her reactions to it. The audience sees all of the poems that Selah shares with her classmates at the end of the novel. I loved the main character, her poems, her interest in fantasy, and the courage she showed by standing up to those around her. I love that both Selah’s mother and her grandfather are also autistic and deal with their neurodivergence in completely different ways. Selah’s Pop does so by avoiding most people and ignoring what they think of him. Selah’s mother avoids confronting anyone, denies that she’s different, and gives Selah advice about not crying in public. Selah’s journey of self-discovery involves casting off most of her mother’s rules, but it also involves accepting that her loved ones were her first disabled role models. Selah and her family adore each other, and that is also wonderful to see in a book—especially a book geared toward young people. 

Title: Good Different
Author: Meg Eden Kuyatt
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.