“What are the things I am good at good for?”
It’s a question to keep most of us awake at night, but coming from the mouth of an autistic child, it carries a rare urgency. On many occasions I’ve looked across my desk into the face of a student awaiting an answer to this most basic of questions about themselves and their self-worth and more than once the example of Temple Grandin has produced something like relief.
As a child in the late Fifties and early Sixties she struggled with the familiar obstacles facing an autistic child during an era ill equipped to understand and meet her needs, but instead of crumpling under that institutional miscomprehension, she turned her supposed disadvantages into her greatest assets.
It’s a magnificent story that has received a film treatment (the 2010 HBO film Temple Grandin with Claire Danes) and a book for late-elementary children, 2014’s Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by the great Sy Montgomery, but a picture book for younger kids has been elusive. The result has been that adults have had ready access to her story but the kids who need her example the most have been oddly cut off from it.
That was changed with the recently release of The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley. Through engaging verse we are told the story of Grandin as she grew up, faced teasing and official reprimanding, and eventually grew up to take on a predominantly male cattle industry, triumphantly convincing it to adopt new standards and practices that lessened the psychological and physical torment of its cows.
Conveying the stresses and misunderstandings of an autistic childhood with understanding is a tall order – the sweet spot that refuses to Pollyanna away the real challenges of growing up autistic while still maintaining enough positivity to offer hope is not easily arrived at, but Mosca’s verse has just the right tone. It’s not often that a kids’ book feels psychologically Right On, but Mosca has managed it here.
The other great challenge of portraying Grandin’s life is, inevitably, talking about the cattle industry. It’s a pretty blood-drenched topic by nature and our instinct is to hide its horrors from children so that they won’t have to feel bad about the meat we feed them and perhaps, more self-servingly, so we won’t have to come to terms with how messed up our eating practices are when viewed through the truth-perceiving eyes of innocents.
Mosca’s strategy is to resolutely not look too closely at the larger grim reality in which Grandin’s work was necessarily situated. Grandin did some wonderful things to relieve the suffering of meat cows, but what both the illustrations and verse suggest is that, after those reforms were instituted, everything was Basically Fine in the cattle industry and we need peer no further. My eldest daughter, when leafing through the book, put it perhaps best when she said, “Man, this is kinda putting a big happy face on industrialized slaughter.” Most, I imagine, will be fine with it, and perhaps grateful for, the avoidance of bigger questions about the basic ethics of large scale meat consumption, seeing it as unsuitable material for a children’s book. I’m not so sure.
On the illustration side, Daniel Rieley’s pages feature large construction-paper-and-marker style figures that capture the spirit of a visually-oriented child feverishly chaining images together. It rings true with the spirit of the story, but it’s also not outrageously engaging. I get that there’s a theme of too much clutter and noise being frustrating for both Grandin and the animals whose lives she changed, and that to illustrate that central idea the backgrounds have been often pared down to just flat colors, and the human figures down to their basic essences but as thematically justified as that approach is, it means the art is just sort of There instead of having opportunities to really step out on its own.
Some of my favorite scientist books for kids feature cunningly employed repeated visual elements. Out of School and Into Nature has an image at the very beginning and very end that is heart-breakingly effective. Summer Birds has its splashes of 17th century fantasy animals as ornamental details. The Girl Who Thought in Pictures has a recurring element of steps leading up to the bottom fourth of a door. Again, there are good thematic reasons for that, but visually it’s hard to think of anything less interesting to look at three separate times than a set of concrete steps. Rieley tries gamely to make something out of the idea, but there’s really not much to be done.
These, however, are pretty small points against the larger story of a book that effectively and importantly portrays an autistic child turning abilities that nobody ever understood to positive advantage and helping an entire species in the process. There is a chronology and more in depth prose biography included as back material for those who want more content, and a good section of online and classic resources one can roust about in to learn more. If you teach children, it would serve well to have a copy of this book on hand, and if you know a child on the spectrum struggling with their identity and future, it’s a pretty solid must.
To see more, check out the book trailer video.
All images courtesy of The Innovation Press and are republished on Women You Should Know with permission.