Interview with Author, Sally J. Pla
I read children’s book, Benji, the Bad Day, and Me and fell in love with a story about siblings—one autistic and one neurotypical—where it’s the autistic sibling who shows compassion and empathy for his brother. I reached out to the author, Sally J. Pla, to find out more about what inspired her to write this children’s picture book.
In addition to BENJI, Sally is an award-winning author of acclaimed middle-grade novels The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. Her books are Junior Library Guild Selections with starred reviews that have appeared on many state awards lists and “best book” roundups. The Someday Birds was the recipient of the 2018 Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award for its portrayal of autism.
Sally has appeared on television and radio as an author and autism advocate. She believes in kindness, respect, and the beauty of different brains. We are all stars shining with different lights! She lives with her family in San Diego, where she’s hard at work on the next story.
Tell us about Benji, the Bad Day, and ME
This is a little story of neurodiversity, sibling rivalry, and a big blue blanket, inspired by my own three sons. Sammy’s had a terrible day at school, and he comes home to realize his autistic brother Benji had a bad day at preschool as well. And Mom’s too busy to help…so Sammy is feeling quite sorry for himself, thinking no one sees his hurt. But a certain someone certainly does.
I wanted to say “I see you” to those kids who, like Sammy, must often wait for an autistic sibling’s needs to be met. And I also wanted to say “I see you” to kids like Benji, because autistic kids DO (of course!) have and show empathy and love for their family, even though it may get revealed in unexpected ways.
And lastly, I wanted to pay homage to Judith Viorst’s classic, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very-Bad Day.” Because I loved that book! It says: Hey, bad days happen; let’s not gloss that over.
What inspired you to write it?
The relationship and dynamics of my own three sons definitely inspired this story. How much they love each other, growing up in this little puppy-pack (they are quite close in age), but also how much they squabbled and scuffled. Also, we had to spend quite a bit of time in waiting rooms for appointments, and that sense of having to relinquish your free time for a sibling—the recognition that that is a sacrifice, but it is also what it means to be part of a family—I wanted to address that.
How does being autistic influence your writing?
Thematically it definitely does. My goal is to populate children’s fiction with real, authentic, autistic characters, where the autism is not the point. The story, the adventure, is the point. To write stories that help neurotypical readers slip into the skin of someone who sees the world a bit differently, whose brain works a bit differently. To write stories that show kids on the spectrum that they do exist on the page, that there are characters out there that look, sound, and feel like them. We all deserve to read stories that resonate personally for us. We all deserve to be seen on the page.
Who’s your illustrator and why was he perfect for capturing the spirit of your book?
My illustrator for the BENJI book was the amazing Ken Min. I had the privilege of meeting him once in real life, and he is just the best! Ken’s an incredibly talented artist, and I love the warm color palette he used for BENJI.
I’m also enamored of the cover art and illustrations that Steve Wolfhard did for one of my middle grade novels, Stanley will Probably Be Fine. Steve captured the comic-book-trivia-mania spirit of this story with epic perfection, and every time I see that cover, I smile.
Who is the ideal reader and how do you see the book being used?
Ideally, it would be nice for BENJI to be part of a diversity picture book collection, in any school or classroom or home… I find that too often, disability and/or neurodiversity is left out of conversations about diversity. And yet it is such an important subgroup in our society and in our classrooms.
What’s the message you want your readers to take away after reading the book?
Perhaps part of the message is that family is always there to save you, although it might be in ways you might not expect.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your books?
Let’s see. The Someday Birds is about 12-year-old autistic Charlie’s reluctant cross-country journey—a quest to find a certain list of birds, and to find his injured father.
Stanley Will Probably Be Fine is about anxious, sensory-processing-challenged Stanley, and his fears of entering a comic-trivia treasure hunt—and how a brazen new friend both helps and challenges him.
And BENJI, of course, is about those two little brothers… So far, I’ve written about a lot of boys! Probably because of all my boys. But now, finally, I’m working on a new story about a girl. It’s set in the near future. I’m very excited about it.
Do you have a proud moment you’d like to share?
When I do school visits, there is often a student or two who will wait until everyone else has filed out. Then, when it is quiet and safe—usually with their teacher lurking in the background, smiling—they will come up to me to talk. I remember one boy who quietly told me how much he loved birds, and about where he went birding. Many others ask questions about the stories, or ask about my life.
I know these are my kids on the spectrum, and I feel such a kinship; I am so proud to know them. I am so proud to know, and communicate, with all of the kids it’s my privilege to meet. Autistic or neurotypical, they are all incredible, thoughtful, and super-smart. I never cease to be amazed by the knowledge, curiosity, and depth-of-understanding of today’s kids.
If our readers leave with only one message after reading this interview, what would you like it to be?
Never underestimate the inherent potential and beauty in every child, and know that kids really need stories. Reading—and stories—help kids understand the world.
What words of encouragement can you offer to other autistic creatives?
Do not doubt yourself. Have confidence. Do it because you enjoy your own unique creative process. Take your time, and give yourself permission to learn and grow in your craft at your own pace, which may be different from the pace of others.
Find out more about Sally J. Pla or buy her books:
- Benji, the Bad Day, and Me on Amazon*
- The Someday Birds on Amazon*
- Stanley Will Probably Be Fine on Amazon*
- Sally J. Pla author website
- @sallyjpla on Twitter and Instagram
If you liked this interview, you may also like:
- Who Doesn’t Want to Be Like Poppin’ Joe?
- Overcoming Loss and Finding Closure in “Mockingbird”
- More books by autistic authors
- More curious interviews with interesting authors and entrepreneurs
- Shop in our Amazon Influencer Autism Book Shop
*The links to buy the books are our affiliate links. By purchasing using these links, you will not only support the author, you’ll be raising funds to support our autistic team of contributors for their work too.