Books

Middle-grade novel where life with ADHD is just life

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When my teen son was younger, I found myself at my favorite book store, asking if there were any middle-grade novels featuring a main character with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). My son was a reluctant reader, and he was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in fifth grade. I figured a book that reflected his experience might hold his interest. Plus, I wanted him to see that ADHD can be a superpower; I found that the way his brain worked, and how he worked around what others would see as obstacles, was pretty amazing. There were some options — including our beloved Percy Jackson series — but nothing quite like what I had in mind.

That’s why, when I recently saw the premise for the new middle grade book “A Perfect Mistake,” I wanted to read it. When I finished, I handed it off to my 12-year-old, the younger brother to our reluctant reader. He was captivated; I had to beg him to turn his lights off and go to sleep already. Although he doesn’t have ADHD, I’m pretty sure it gave him some insight into his brother.

The book was just what I had been looking for for years ago.

I recently spoke with Melanie Conklin, the author of the book, about why she wrote it, what inspired her and what she hopes kids (and parents) will take away from it. Here is an edited excerpt of that conversation.

Tell me about this book. How did it come to be?

I started thinking about this book four or five years ago. I knew I wanted to write a book that centered on a child with ADHD who was struggling with a situation where they felt they made a terrible mistake. I really love books with high-stakes situations, but that have relevant issues of growing up.

What if this child has made a really bad mistake, but comes to learn other people make bad choices too? A child with ADHD really ends up thinking something is wrong with them because they get so much of that feedback, but I want to show them that other people and adults make mistakes too. I loved books that showed messy grown ups.

Let’s talk ADHD — why does your main character, Max, have it?

My experience with ADHD started when I met my husband in high school 28 years ago. That was a time when ADHD was just starting to be recognized and diagnosed. By the time we got to college, he was failing out. It was becoming more common knowledge that this might be going on, so I took him to the health center and he was diagnosed with ADHD. And my older son, who just turned 16, has ADHD. So it’s been a part of my life and something I’ve navigated a lot. The parts of the story where I’m showing you how this goes with Max is what we’re dealing with every day. I relate to parenting and managing all of that.

We’re really fortunate there are so many resources for kids now. I won’t spoil the book, but a lot of times [when] kids get diagnosed, adults do too.

I specifically showed Max with the inattentive type of ADHD because that’s what my son and husband are diagnosed with. These kids are often called daydreamers, or they zone out or they’re flaky. [But] their brain is constantly [going]. It shouldn’t be called a “deficit.” It’s not a lack of attention.

Unfortunately we aren’t born with a manual, we write it as we go. And we shouldn’t expect everyone’s user manual to look the same. We should tell kids we’re going to pay attention to you and what strategies work for you, and let you write your own manual. And that is how you empower a kid.

That’s what I tried to show with Max. Part of where he got the conviction to help his friend is he’s already gone through this trial and tribulation. He’s kind of willing to put his neck out there, and I think that’s because of who he is, not in spite of who is.

[Max] was given this feeling of not being enough. And I wanted to show who he is just enough. I think sometimes we need to work harder at understanding other people’s perspectives. The real gift of humanity is to imagine and empathize with other humans.

Despite so many kids being diagnosed with ADHD, I feel like I haven’t seen many books where the main character is a kid with ADHD. Have you felt the same?

I had already read several, [including] “Focusedby Alyson Gerber. A few others, most of them focus on the diagnosis part of the journey. Discovering that you have ADHD is something I know a lot of kids really relate to. I wanted to write about a kid who’s just living with ADHD. Max already has support people in place, like this cool therapist. I just felt like I want to show this is how your life can be. This kid is out here solving a mystery, helping his community.

What do you hope readers will get out of this book?

I hope anyone who reads this story is wildly entertained. I hope they are also then surprised by the emotional connection they feel by the end of the story, and they get a sense of reward as Max figures out his life. And that they will get a sense of assurance that they will figure out their life as well.

[Through] my stack of books as a kid, I got such reassurance that I will be able to get through. It’s just comforting to relate to these fictional people. I do end up feeling like the characters in my books are real. This one was emotional for me because so many qualities about Max relate to my son.

I’m a more anxious person who likes to clean. I don’t like stuff out — it makes me feel stressed. My son explained to me, because every inch of his room is covered in objects, that if everything is out “I can find it really fast.” Oh, so there’s a job here. It hadn’t crossed my mind that he needed to do his room differently.

I’m hoping there are some of those moments in this book, and readers go “Oh, it’s not a choice, it’s a different way of moving through the world.”

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