Tornado Brain: a love letter to the useless child by Cat Patrick
Do you know that child?
The one who appears disheveled. Or the one who refuses to read aloud in class—or sit near classmates. The one with the dauntingly disastrous locker or bedroom. The one with obvious intelligence but failing grades. Maybe the one who has trouble remembering instructions. Or the one who’s grabby. Too loud. Impolite. How about the one who’s always last out the door and moves like molasses? The one who can’t stand if you rearrange the furniture. Or the one who bursts into tears in public. Don’t forget the one who sits alone in the school cafeteria every single day.
The one who’s neurodiverse?
Neurodiversity is a neologism for people with developmental disabilities such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and those on the autism spectrum. But my description of the neurodiverse people I love doesn’t involve such an official term. Instead, I call them bright…hilarious…creative…interested…inventive…inspiring. My description uses a lot of big, lovely adjectives to describe their big, lovely personalities.
The thing is, the neurodiverse children and adults I know don’t tend to label themselves as neurodiverse either—nor do they seem to use big, lovely adjectives. Maybe on a great day, they consider themselves awesome. On a bad day, though, the words aren’t so kind. In reference to those I love—out of the mouths of those I love—I’ve heard stupid…different…weird…alone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about one in six of the 74.2 million children in the United States has a developmental disability, so they’re not alone—but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel that way. That doesn’t mean, heartbreaking as it is, they don’t sometimes feel useless.
Tornado Brain, hitting shelves May 5, 2020, is about a neurodiverse girl named Frankie, who feels alone because of her disability and useless as a daughter, sister, and student. She struggles to get by in a world that wasn’t built with her in mind—to fit in, stay organized, keep her emotions in check, not compare herself to her sister, and make—and keep—friends. But now on top of everything else, the one friend she used to have has disappeared. Ultimately, Frankie’s the only one equipped to solve the mystery of what happened to her former friend because of how her brain is wired—not in spite of it. Tornado Brain is a story of friendship, sisters, and finding space to be yourself.
The book is set in Long Beach, Washington, a quirky town where my family and I go as often as we can to unplug, relax, and be ourselves. It’s where I’ve spent many minutes and hours pondering how to help those I love use more big, lovely adjectives about themselves instead of descriptors I never want to hear again. It’s only natural that this book was conceptualized, partially written, and heavily edited in Long Beach. And to me, the gorgeous cover is the perfect visual representation of the story and the setting.
Populating libraries and bookstores with more books featuring neurodiverse characters is one way to help those with developmental disabilities feel more connected—and remind neurotypical readers to practice empathy. The truth is that neurodiversity often dresses up as something else: a jerk, a space case, a bad student. It’s invisible: we have to dig a little deeper to get why the jerk, space case, or bad student acts that way. Offering more books featuring neurodiverse characters is a step toward understanding.
A Wired article from a few years ago talks about the need to not just accept neurodiversity but to recognize it as valid contribution to society at large. There’s a lot to love about the piece, but I’ll share the bit that most stuck with me.
“In a world changing faster than ever, honoring and nurturing neurodiversity is civilization’s best chance to thrive in an uncertain future.”
Civilization’s best chance?
There’s absolutely nothing useless about that.
Cat Patrick is the author of several books for young adults including Summer 2011 Kids Indie Next List pick Forgotten, which sold in 23 countries; ALA 2013 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers selection Revived; and others. Tornado Brain is her middle grade debut. Cat and her family live near Seattle. Find her online at http://www.catpatrick.com.