Elle-Q has become a bona-fide pop sensation basically overnight, singing her way into the hearts of her fellow middle schoolers in her viral online videos. But behind the mask and flashy outfits, Elle-Q is hiding a big secret, one that would be sure to surprise the students at Rainham Middle School: she’s actually Mia Tabolt, their quiet, autistic classmate.
Bullied for years by popular girls Laura and Jess and the rest of their clique for her autism, Mia doesn’t feel like she can be herself at school. But when she’s with her best friend Charlie, she knows she doesn’t have to hide anything. Plus, they’re the person who’s been creating the awesome beats Elle-Q sings to!
When the chance to perform in a local talent show comes up, Charlie thinks it’s the perfect opportunity for Elle-Q to go live in person, but Mia is hesitant. Will her overprotective mother ever understand what she’s truly capable of? Will the bullies judge her for even trying? Will her friendship with Charlie survive her uncertainty? Mia’s got a lot of choices to make, and only she can decide if she’s going to stick with what she knows or break open the box the world seems determined to stick her in.
It’s so much fun to see an alter-ego story that centers an autistic character, especially one where the alter-ego isn’t fictional or imagined. Elle-Q isn’t just a character that Mia writes about, a version of herself who lives in a comic or in a game with a friend, or even just in her own imagination as a story-within-a-story. Instead, Elle-Q is a stage persona, which is something that’s incredibly common for lots of musicians and artists, even big name, well-known allistic (non-autistic) ones. In that respect, what Mia and Charlie have created is a tale as old as show business itself, even if the concept of Elle-Q did start as Mia’s idea for a Dungeons and Dragons character.
Purple-haired and bedazzled, Elle-Q is a loud, vibrant, boisterous version of Mia, the complete opposite of how she’s presented herself to everyone she knows her whole life. She’s a version of Mia who allows herself to be everything people around her judge her for or, in the case of her mother, actively try to make her suppress. Rebecca Burgess does not shy away from showing the detrimental effects of intent versus impact that often occur from the actions of overprotective parents of autistic children. While Mia’s mother may think she’s trying to shield Mia from a harsh world by trying to have her act and be more “normal” (in this case: neurotypical), she’s actually telling Mia that her natural instincts and even bodily functions, like stimming, are not acceptable, not even to her own mother. The effect this has on Mia’s self-esteem is not so different from the effects of Laura and Jess’ years of bullying, and while it’s hard to read, it’s unfortunately incredibly realistic for many neurodiverse youth.
Additionally, while realistic from the perspective of middle schoolers and how friendships are made, the redemption arc Laura receives (partially through being an Elle-Q superfan) could perhaps be approached with caution by young readers. While sometimes you do overcome your differences to find common ground and real connection, no one should ever feel pressure to befriend their former bullies, even when those bullies have worked to redeem themselves.
Through Burgess’ vividly delightful art, readers will feel the characters’ big emotions right along with them, especially when they use a manga-esque style to highlight overexaggerated facial expressions. Emotions are definitely a strength of Burgess’s; the panels depicting the internal and external sensations Mia experiences as she moves through the world as an autistic person are visceral; lightning bolts and dark clouds surround her in moments of sensory overload; a metal panel with rivets is drawn over her mouth when she feels silenced, etc. While the majority of the main characters seem to be depicted as white, including Mia, Charlie is Black, and another member of the popular clique seems to be Black-coded as well. The almost watercolor-like feel of the digitally created art lends it a softness that is just the right vibe for this story.
Mia’s experience of confronting stereotypes and expectations head-on, standing up to bullies, and learning how to be herself is a story that’s at once universal while also being specific to marginalized youth. She is a welcome and important addition to the growing canon of autistic characters in children’s literature. Speak Up! has something in it for many types of readers, and is a recommended read for all libraries that serve tweens and teens.
By Rebecca Burgess
Quill Tree, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Asexual, Queer, Nonbinary , Autistic Spectrum
Character Representation: Autistic Spectrum