Author Interview: Elana K. Arnold On Writing & Containing Multitudes

By Rebecca Kirshenbaum

Today on Cynsations we welcome the prolific Elana K. Arnold, who talks neuroatypicality, her new book, and how she—and all of us—contain multitudes.

I am a big fan of your work, and I’m also in awe of your range in writing picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA. And nailing it all! I’m pretty excited about your early middle-grade novel, Just Harriet (HarperCollins, 2022). Can you tell us about it? What else are you working on right now?

Thank you! My core philosophies are these: children are whole people; all people deserve good art. So, I am dedicated to making the best, most artful books I can for readers of all ages.

Here’s the official flap copy for Just Harriet, releasing on February 1, 2022:

There are a few things you should know about Harriet Wermer:

    • She just finished third grade.
    • She has a perfect cat named Matzo Ball.
    • She doesn’t always tell the truth.
    • She is very happy to be spending summer vacation away from home and her mom and dad and all the wonderful things she had been planning all year.

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t entirely the truth.

Of course, there’s nothing Harriet doesn’t like about Marble Island, the small island off the coast of California where her nanu runs a cozy little bed and breakfast. And nobody doesn’t love Moneypenny, Nanu’s old basset hound. But Harriet doesn’t like the fact that Dad made this decision without even asking her.

When Harriet arrives on Marble Island, however, she discovers that it’s full of surprises, and even a mystery. One that seems to involve her Dad, back when he was a young boy living on Marble Island. One that Harriet is absolutely going to solve. And that’s the truth.

Like the Bat books, Just Harriet will be a series, lightly illustrated—these, by the wonderful Dung Ho!

And I’m working very hard on my next young adult novel. Titled The Blood Years, it’s based on my grandmother’s teenage years in Czernowitz, Romania, where she endured the Holocaust. It’s a story, I think, about the great and terrible things people do in the name of love.

I also have my second Starla Jean book—Starla Jean Takes the Cake, illustrated by the phenomenal A.N. Kang—out in November! It was supposed to be out in September, but… supply chain problems.

Let’s talk about neurodiversity. You wrote the chapter book series beginning with A Boy Called Bat illustrated by Charles Santoso, (HarperCollins, 2018) featuring an autistic character, before publicly recognizing your own neurodivergence. Can you tell us a little bit about what led to that decision? What, if anything, has changed for you since then?

There is this big messy important movement in which, for very good reasons, people want to make sure that they are reading and sharing books written by those from within the communities represented in the books. This comes, I think, from a desire to protect children who may encounter a version of themselves or those they love in books, and a sense that books written by people from within the community are less likely to get it wrong.

But, look. Writers are also individual human beings, and they write their stories from a variety of experiences, a complicated web of identities that don’t always boil down to “inside” or “outside” of a specific label… and, when it comes to dealing with labels that overlap with psychological or medical diagnoses, authors may have complicated reasons for choosing not to disclose every slice of their experience/connections/identities.

Here’s a true story. Not that many years ago, I was denied medical coverage because of “preexisting conditions.” Because I was unable to get health care privately, my husband had to remain in a job situation that wasn’t a good fit in order to keep me covered by health care.

Today we are able to buy our insurance through the wonderful thing called Obamacare… but there’s no guarantee that things will stay this way. The good news is that the Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit seeking to have the ACA repealed in June of this year, but the bad news is that we don’t know for certain that the ACA will remain in place.

“Elana,” you may be moaning, “this is a conversation about neuroatypicality and kids’ books! Not what’s happening with the Affordable Care Act!” But the truth is, everything is connected. How my brain works affects the stories I write, on many levels. How my health care works affects how private I choose to be about many aspects of my selfhood that overlap with what are considered to be medical and psychological conditions.

My hand was forced a bit when I began to see speculation about my brain and how it works, and conversation about whether I was “inside” or “outside” of the neuroatypical community and the autistic community. Suddenly, whereas I had felt that I was protecting my medical privacy, I began to feel that I was lying by omission. And I hate lying. It makes my skin itchy on the inside, to lie.

But truth isn’t simple, and there are many reasons why I will continue to lean towards privacy—some that I’ve illuminated here, and others that I have not.

How do you bring your perspective as a neurodivergent person to your work? How important is it for you to bring neurodiverse voices to the page? Have you always felt this way or has it evolved over time?

Every book I write is a combination of these things:

Lived Experiences + Observations + What If = Story

This means that at least one third of every story I write is based on my own true experiences, feelings, memories, desires, and fears. Another third is based on things I’ve observed—in other people, in books I’ve read, in TV and movies I’ve watched, in music I’ve listened to, on the walks I take, in articles I’ve clicked on, and more. And the third third is the playful, curious spark that comes from who-knows-where and acts as a catalyst. So, this means that I cannot escape the way my brain works, the way I engage with my own lived experiences, my own observations, my own curiosity—not that I want to escape it! I love my brain. I think my brain is terrific. It’s one of my favorite brains.

So, this means that everything I write comes from my perspective, whether I am aware of it or not—my perspective as a mostly-cisgendered woman, my perspective as a neuroatypical person, my perspective as a white agnostic Jewish human, my perspective as a mother, my perspective as a monogamist who wishes she could live a thousand parallel lives, my perspective as someone who’s experienced sexual trauma, my perspective as a person who loves living so intensely as to be plagued by death phobia, my perspective as a person who is aware that the boxes we are asked to put ourselves in are made of cardboard at best and are both flimsy and flammable—I’m writing from all these perspectives, all the time.

I contain multitudes. And so do each and every one of you.

Elana’s YA book Damsel was named a Printz Honor

Now that you publicly identify as neurodivergent, have you shifted your writing focus to include more characters with differently thinking brains? Can you talk a little about that?

No, I haven’t shifted my writing focus. I have always written about myself, the things I observe, and the things I imagine. And I will continue to do so.

You’ve written so many different characters, all so wonderfully unique. Is there one particular character you’ve created that you feel particularly close to? Dare I say, a favorite?

I love all of my characters because they are all me. I am always particularly enamored with the characters I am working with at the present moment—right now, that’s Frederieke Teitler, known as Rieke to those who love her, who is part me, part my grandmother, and part “what if.” But I truly love all of my characters.

Last year you began running your own courses, Vision Season and Revision Season. Any writer knows that revision is where the magic happens! Tell me about how your writing process led into the creation of these courses. Has your own writing benefitted from teaching others about revision? 

When the pandemic hit, I found myself feeling remarkably isolated from other humans. I wanted a way to connect with writers, and I also was hoping to find a way to help replace the income I’d lost as a result of all my school visits and speaking engagements canceling. I came up with the idea for Revision Season that spring.

One thing I’ve learned after writing and revising more than a dozen novels for readers of all ages is that each revision is different, but the questions underpinning each revision are essentially the same: What did I make? What do I love about it, and how I can I lean further into those directions? What doesn’t yet satisfy me about what I’ve made? How can I better utilize the seeds I’ve planted to grow my work in directions that bring me deeper satisfaction?

Last spring, I began work on another course—Vision Season. Something I saw over and over again working with students both in Revision Season and in the Hamline MFAC program where I teach—and in my own work—is the tendency of writers to clench, to squeeze, to feel a sense of desperation and scarcity. This is the antithesis, in my experience, of feeling “loose in the wrist,” free and creative. I wanted more of that good, unclenched feeling for myself and other writers, and Vision Season grew out of my research into where our ideas come from and how we can better enjoy the process of writing—even the painful parts.

Cynsational Notes

Elana K. Arnold is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel (Balzer + Bray, 2018), the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of (Holiday House, 2020), and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including Rise, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program as well as privately. Visit to learn more—enrollment open through October 9, 2021.

Rebecca Kirshenbaum has an MFA in WCYA from VCFA, an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University, and an MA in English literature from Columbia. She really, really likes being a student. She grew up in Cleveland and roots for all Cleveland sports teams even though she now lives in Boston.

She lives with her husband Mark, her teenage sons, Caleb and Eli, plus a lot of animals – guinea pigs Frisky and Sprinkles, a bunch of fish, and her family’s therapy dog (aka best dog in the world), Quimby. (All you kidlit people should get the Ramona reference!). When not reading and writing, she teaches fourth and fifth grade literacy and organizes her bookshelves in rainbow order.