A Literary Hero for All Abilities – Joel Suzuki

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A Literary Hero for All Abilities 

by Karen Krejcha

Readers who stay current on books featuring fictional characters on the autism spectrum may already be familiar with Brian Tashima’s The Spectraland Saga (now the Joel Suzuki series), a science fiction/fantasy book series about a teenage boy on the autism spectrum who travels to a world where music is magic and autism is a superpower. But what they may not know and what we hope for all readers to discover is just how important it is to Brian that his series aligns with positive goals within the autism community. Spectrums caught up with the Vancouver, Washington based author and award-winning musician for an exclusive interview to talk about that topic and more. 

How many of the characters in your book series identify on the autism spectrum?

BT: Explicitly three: the protagonist Joel Suzuki, his co-star Felicity Smith, and Marshall Byle, their rock star idol.

Describe their personalities.

BT: Joel is sensitive and soft-spoken, although he starts to come out of his shell a bit more as the series progresses. Felicity is feisty, a little abrasive at times, and uses sarcasm as sort of a defense mechanism. Marshall is what you might expect from a successful rock star: charming, charismatic, but also full of himself. All three of them change and grow with each book in the series, which makes them fun to write.

You have good guys and bad guys on the spectrum in your book. Is this intentional and why?

BT: It is intentional. The message I wanted to get across was that being on the spectrum shouldn’t pigeonhole you one way or another—you can be good, bad, or somewhere in between, just like anyone else in the population as a whole. Whether you’re on the spectrum or not, we are all, simply, people.

What are the challenges in creating autistic characters that readers on/off the spectrum will relate to and feel are authentic?

BT: My biggest challenge is that I’m not on the spectrum myself. But my son Torin, who is on the spectrum and was the initial inspiration for this series, serves as kind of the model upon which Joel is based. Also, Autism Empowerment’s Karen Krejcha, who is on the spectrum as well, has been gracious enough to review drafts of each book before they’re published and provide her feedback. It’s very important to me that my characters are realistic portrayals of people on the spectrum, so I’m really grateful for Torin and Karen’s input and support.

Who are the books geared toward?

BT: The series is aimed at a young adult audience, around 12-18 in age. But I think anyone who’s a fan of science fiction and fantasy in general—like me, for example—would also enjoy it.

How have your books been received by the autism community? 

BT: The response has been nothing but positive so far, so I’m very happy about that. I think the most gratifying moments have been when I receive letters from kids on the spectrum saying things like “Thank you for writing this, it’s made me feel so much better about myself.”

How have the books been received by the Young Adult/Sci-Fi/Fantasy community at large?

BT: Quite well, actually, which is cool because readers of this genre can be pretty critical and demanding at times—I should know, being one of them myself. The reviews of the books that are out so far have contained a handful of constructive criticisms, but the rest of the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

What are your goals for the series (in relation to promoting autism acceptance or advocacy)?

BT: My main goals are one, to provide kids on the spectrum with an inspiring literary hero of their own that they can relate to and gain a sense of coolness and empowerment from—someone who saves the day with his special qualities, not despite them. And two, to give readers in general a fun adventure story that, if they don’t already know anything about autism, provides them with a level of insight and awareness. As I like to say, I’m not trying to minimize the challenges of being on the spectrum, I’m trying to emphasize the positives.

Tell us why and how you chose an actor on the autism spectrum to do the voiceover work for your audiobook?

BT: When I did the audio version of the first book in the series, I really wanted to find a voice actor who was on the spectrum, not only to provide a level of authenticity to the work but also to show people what kind of amazing talent there is out there in the autism community. So I was fortunate enough to meet Jonathan Murphy, who had already done a lot of cool work including being the narrator for a lot of rides at the Great America theme park in California. He did a fantastic job with the audiobook, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

One of your goals is for the series to become a movie franchise. Tell us about this.

BT: A lot of people have told me that the books are very visual and that they would love to see them adapted to the big screen. And I tell them, me too! I think it would be a great way to expand the audience and spread the message, if you will. I saw The Accountant, the Ben Affleck-starring movie with the main character on the spectrum, and while I enjoyed it for the most part, it made me think that there really is a need for a positive, kid-friendly film with an autistic protagonist.

Why is it important to you that autistic actors be cast in some of the leading roles and autistic advisors be involved in the production?

BT: Just like with the books and the audiobook, it’s really important to me that the characters be the most genuine and respectful portrayals that they can possibly be. And, of course, I’d like to give people in the autism community the opportunity to show off their skills and break into an industry in which people with disabilities in general have been sorely underrepresented. It would be really cool if Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah, both of whom are on the spectrum, would play roles in the film versions of my books. They’re not quite the right fit for Joel and Felicity, of course, but we’d find roles for them for sure!

Does a reader need to read your books in order?

BT: Each of the books is a story in itself, but the series as a whole does form one continual arc, so it would be much more enjoyable to read them in order. It’s more like Harry Potter than James Bond in that respect.

Tell us about your upcoming book in the series.

BT: The third book, Legend of the Loudstone, is tentatively scheduled to be released in either March or April of 2017. Without giving away too much, it expands the Spectraland universe pretty significantly as Joel and company travel to a new and exciting location where they meet a completely different race of beings. I had a lot of fun writing it.

How can readers buy your books? 

BT: They can find and buy them online at my website, www.thespectralandsaga.com or www.joelsuzuki.com, which contains links to my Amazon pages as well as sample chapters. They can also get them at Kazoodles toy store in Vancouver, WA, or at one of my periodic public appearances in the area that I announce on my blog which can be found at www.briantashima.blogspot.com.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 print and online edition of Spectrums Magazine.

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