I have always been fascinated with narratives about outsiders in children’s and young adult literature: books that give voice to those who don’t often get heard. To my mind these are the most important stories to tell, especially for those of us who grew up on the outside. But really, doesn’t everyone feel like an outsider at some time or in some aspect of their lives? That’s why I pretty much inhaled Rogue, the latest novel from Lyn Miller Lachmann. This powerful young adult novel tells the story of an eighth grader — Kiara a./k.a. Rogue — with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome and an X-Men obsession, whose effort to befriend another outcast after being expelled from school leads her to some difficult and dangerous choices.
Author Lyn Miller-Lachmann has a fascinating and varied work history. She was the editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and co-host of a bilingual program of Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history on WRPI-FM as well as a part-time seventh grade teacher. She is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and reviews children’s and young adult books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree.
There are so many ways Rogue’s story will reach young readers. Think of all the kids (and adults) who have found comfort in the exploits of superheroes. Or have been faced with the lure of rules or law-breaking. Or have had their lives touched by someone with Asperger’s. That’s why I was so grateful to have the opportunity to interview Lyn about her life and work.
The protagonist of Rogue, Kiara, is such an endearing character. I mean, as a reader you can understand the challenges of those around her, but more than that, you understand the struggles she herself experiences while making her way through the world. As an author with Asperger’s, was it difficult to step outside the disorder and write about how the world saw Rogue?
One of the biggest challenges for me in writing Rogue was seeing Kiara the way other people see her. This is part of what has been termed “mind-blindness,” the inability of people on the autism spectrum to perceive the thoughts and feelings of others, and along with that, to interpret correctly how other people see us. I was fortunate to have worked on Rogue at VCFA, where three wonderful advisers — An Na, Jane Kurtz, and Sarah Ellis — helped me to understand how the world might see Kiara. Also of great help were the workshop leaders and fellow students in my first semester workshop at VCFA and the members of my two critique groups in Albany. Given my own weaknesses in this area, I am truly grateful to everyone whose input gave me a more complete and nuanced understanding of my character and her relationship with the world.
In the book, Kiara skirts the world of BMX racing. Did you have an interest in that sport before writing the book?
Until I developed back and shoulder problems several years ago, I was an avid — if not particularly skilled — mountain biker. In fact, in 2002 I wrote a short story featuring Antonio, the friend of Kiara’s older brother, who looks out for her and whom she sees as her Wolverine. In that story, which was published in an online literary journal, Antonio races on his father’s mountain bike shortly after his father’s death from leukemia. One of my favorite mountain bike trails circled a BMX track, and sometimes I’d see preteen and teenage boys doing stunts on the mounds of the BMX track.
The issue of mainstreaming children with Asperger’s into the public school system is an ongoing debate. Kiara experiences both worlds, but ends up being home schooled. What are your feelings about this issue?
Kiara is not home schooled out of choice, and she’s torn between what may be a more comfortable situation for her (because she doesn’t have to deal with bullying) and not wanting to be so isolated. Going forward into high school, she prefers to be in school, in the honors classes where she’s challenged intellectually. On the whole, I favor the mainstreaming of young people with Asperger’s because it’s the best way of developing both the intellectual and the social skills they need to be successful beyond the confines of school. Of course, young people with Asperger’s should not be thrown into mainstream classes to sink or swim but rather receive counseling to develop social skills and to prevent their becoming the targets of bullies.
In your first novel, Gringolandia, you told the story of a teenage refugee from Chile coming to terms with his father’s imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet dictatorship…you clearly don’t shy away from telling difficult stories. Can you tell us what your hopes are in writing stories like Kiara’s and Daniel’s?
I want to make visible the lives and struggles of people who are in some ways outsiders. Having been an outsider because of Asperger’s, I’ve always been attracted to the stories of other people on the margins, including people who have experienced bullying and oppression. Unlike Kiara, Daniel sees himself as someone who can fit in — while his father is in prison back in Chile, he has made a new life for himself in the United States and has even begun the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. But his father’s sudden arrival stirs memories along with Daniel’s sense of responsibility for the people he loves and for his place in the world.
In the end, both Kiara and Daniel are trying to find their place. Both of them end up doing the thing that is most difficult for them to do, and that’s the thing that leads them to discover who they are and what they have to contribute.
Okay, so through your writing of Kiara’s comic book fascination, you displayed at least a working knowledge of the genre. Out of curiosity, do you share her X-Men obsession?
When I was in high school, I was drawn to the X-Men because they were different and excluded from mainstream society and because other people didn’t understand them. I felt that way as well. I was drawn to Professor Xavier because he served as a mentor to the young mutants, showing them how to find their special powers and to use them for good, and I wanted to have a mentor like that. I drifted away from the X-Men pretty quickly, though, because they had very few female characters at that time, and I couldn’t see myself in any of the characters. Living in the present day, Kiara has more choices than I did. Rogue appeared for the first time in the early 1980s, and her heyday was in the mid-2000s — around the time the novel takes place — when she was a principal character in an X-Men movie, played by Anna Paquin.
I loved your connection of Kiara with Rogue’s superpower that included an inability to touch people. What other qualities do you think Kiara shares with her comic book counterpart?
One of the things that attracts Kiara to Rogue is her backstory. Rogue’s mother abandoned her when she was around Kiara’s age, back when she was known as Anna Marie. While Kiara’s mother hasn’t actually abandoned her — her mother is the family’s principal breadwinner and must live elsewhere and travel for work — Kiara feels abandoned. Her mother was the person who helped her navigate the world, and the family’s economic troubles weigh heavily on Kiara’s overwhelmed father.
Like Anna Marie/Rogue, Kiara reacts to her mother’s leaving and other instances of rejection by lashing out at a world that does not understand or accept her. Such an incident begins the novel, as Kiara slams a lunch tray in the face of a tormentor and faces suspension from school for the rest of the year. Kiara understands first-hand why Rogue joined the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and she too is tempted to do things that she knows are wrong in order to have friends and a place where she fits in.
Tell us about your relationship with Legos? You are quite the world builder in your writing AND your Lego creativity!
My son was into Lego pirates and castles, and I helped him build those elaborate worlds that decorated his bedroom. Like many pre-teenage boys, he moved on to other pursuits and ended up selling his sets to a collector when he went to college. Around that time, though, Lego released the modular sets, which are based on historic European and U.S. buildings. They appealed to my love of all things historical and international, so I began to build and people my Lego town, to which I gave the name Little Brick Township. I use the buildings and other places in the town, such as transit stations and parks, as the backdrop for stories involving my minifigures. Typically I photograph the little guys and gals in action and caption each frame to tell a story. For the most part, these stories would be classified as adult — maybe “new adult” — rather than for children. I used to post some of the photos on the Lego Shop’s Facebook site, but one photo of the mayor taking bribes in his Town Hall office under cover of night proved to be a bit too controversial for them.
Tell us about The Pirate Tree. Are you one of the site’s founders?
Jessica Powers, who also attended VCFA, founded The Pirate Tree in March 2011 and enlisted various other writers to join her. I was in the first group of five reviewers; we have since been joined by two others. Besides Jessica and me, Ann Angel, Nancy Bo Flood, and Varian Johnson have a VCFA connection. We review books for children and teens that have a social justice connection. These include books that depict various forms of diversity in the United States and around the world; environmental issues; children dealing with abuse, violence and war; the effects of economic inequality and oppression on youth; bullying; LGBTQ youth; and young people with disabilities. We publish reviews twice a week on our website, www.thepiratetree.com.
As a Latina it has always been clear to me that you have an insider’s knowledge of the Hispanic world. What is your connection?
After leaving graduate school in 1980 and being fired from my first teaching job, I ended up teaching in one of the toughest high schools in New York City. The majority of the students there were from Puerto Rico and Central America, and I ended up dividing my time between that school and a nearby academic-specialized high school with a large number of students from the Caribbean. I got to know both my students and a Puerto Rican colleague and through them became interested in Latino and Latin American history and culture. (I often say that I learned more from my students than they learned from me, but I really do think I taught them useful things as well.) When my husband landed a job in Madison, Wisconsin and I had to move away from New York, I became involved in an organization founded by a group of Chilean exiles to bring musicians, writers, artists, and exiled political activists to speak. I also taught English to refugees and students from Central and South America and helped out with the Sanctuary Movement to provide asylum to refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador.
By my count you speak English, Spanish and Portuguese…how many languages can you converse in?
Those three are the only ones. I can get by in French and Italian and would like to learn Catalan.
What’s next? Are you still working on Ants Go Marching?
I recently finished a round of revisions on Ants Go Marching, and it’s going out on submission right after Labor Day. I’m now working on a middle grade novel inspired by the semester my husband and I lived in Portugal after I graduated from VCFA.
If you could list one “take away” you would like readers to get from reading Rogue, what would that be?
Everyone has something to contribute to the world. Kiara’s quest to find her “special power” is something we all want and deserve — a place in society and a way that we can contribute and be appreciated and valued.
Tell us something about yourself that’s not on the official bio.
I’m a huge fan of House Hunters International. I’d like to be featured on the show one day, which means that I’d like to live in another country again too. Portugal is at the very top of my list.