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'Baby-sitters Club' author Ann M. Martin talks tackling autism in new novel, 'Rain Reign': EXCLUSIVE

There’s much more to Ann M. Martin than the bestselling Baby-sitters Club books. An extraordinarily prolific author, she’s penned over a dozen novels for young readers over the past 10 years — though perhaps none as topical as her latest, Rain Reign. The story follows 11-year-old Rose Howard, a bright fifth grader who’s obsessed with homonyms, rule-following, and her dog Rain — her only true friend, since Rose’s high-functioning autism makes it difficult for her to relate to other people. When a devastating superstorm hits Rose’s hometown and Rain goes missing, she goes on a quest to find her companion — and ends up uncovering secrets that will change her world forever.

Get a first glimpse at the novel’s cover above, and read on to see what Martin has to say about her inspiration for the book, its connection to her own dearly departed dog — and where she thinks one unforgettable Baby-sitters Club character may have ended up.

The protagonist of Rain Reign is a young girl who’s on the autism spectrum. This is actually a topic that you’ve covered a few times before, correct?
My interest in autism began when I was in high school and continued into college. I took a number of special ed teaching classes while I was in college and, during the summers, worked at a school in Princeton for kids with autism. There was no term, “Asperger Syndrome,” back then, or “autism spectrum” — they were just kids with autism. And I was just fascinated by the kids. The work that I did there was the inspiration for Inside Out and also for one of the Baby-sitters Club books, Kristy and the Secret of Susan. And, to a certain extent, for Rain Reign.

The other books you’ve written that touch on autism are told from an outsider’s perspective, but Rain Reign is written from the perspective of a girl who’s on the spectrum.
Yes, [I'm] telling it from her perspective and in her voice. I started to hear Rose’s voice before I actually began writing the book. I’d been talking with my editors about another story about a dog; I’d already written A Dog’s Life and Everything For a Dog. And Jean was also interested in a story about a superstorm, like Superstorm Sandy. But I had Rose’s voice in my head already, this girl who was fascinated by homonyms and has all of her rituals and her counting obsessions, her obsession with numbers, that sort of thing. So yes, I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of somebody with Asperger syndrome or on the autism spectrum.

Those earlier books are about kids with pretty severe autism, but Rose is fairly high-functioning. Did you want to use Rain Reign to show a different side of the disorder?
Yeah — there are so many kids now, both in schools for kids on the autism spectrum and in public schools, who have been mainstreamed into classrooms with quote-unquote “normally functioning kids.” I think that kids are much more apt to know somebody who’s on the autism spectrum, and so that was another reason for writing about Rose. But [the book is] also about somebody who kids might be more able to identify with, who isn’t quite so severely affected.

Do you feel like your understanding of autism has changed since you wrote those previous books?
I think it has, and certainly my knowledge about kids who are more high-functioning [has]. The term Asperger syndrome is not used so much anymore, but kids who are at the higher end of the autism spectrum — that was something I didn’t know very much about when I was first interested in autism, and it was actually fascinating.

I also wanted to ask you about Sadie, to whom you dedicated the book.
Sadie — she was the best dog. The only dog I’ve ever had, so my first dog, obviously. I’m not sure I’ll have another dog again, but she was relaly wonderful. She was with me for 15 and a half years, the inspiration for A Dog’s Life and Everything For a Dog too. And she was alive while I was writing most of Rain Reign.

Is Rain like her?
Rain is somewhat like Sadie. I think all the dogs I’ve written about are rather Sadie-like. Actually, there are quite a few similarities — there’s a scene in Rain Reign when Rose’s father becomes very aggressive toward Rose, and Rain sort of attacks him. Sadie would absolutely have done that for me, even though she was the sweetest, gentlest dog.

Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?
I did; I read it years and years ago. I thought it was a wonderful book.

There are a few similarities between it and Rain Reign.
You know, it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I don’t even have that clear a memory of it. But I do remember liking it a lot at the time and being awed by how true the character’s voice sounded.

What are you hoping that young readers will get out of Rain Reign?
I hope that they will gain some more understanding of kids [with autism] that might be in their classes with them. And of course with any book, I hope simply that kids come away with a positive reading experience. There are some other things in the book that may speak to kids today, especially any child who’s been affected by Sandy or Hurricane Irene or Katrina — that kind of thing happens so much more frequently now, and I hope that it might help some kids to read a story about that.

I really liked the way the book ends — it’s not unhappy, but everything isn’t really wrapped up with a bow. It’s a little bittersweet.
Yes, exactly. And that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to be realistic. I hope readers will see that there is hope, but I wanted very much for the end to be realistic.

And this is an entirely different topic, but while I have you on the phone — I’ve read your thoughts on where the girls of the Baby-sitters Club might be now. I was also a really big fan of the Baby-sitters Little Sister books, though, and I wanted to see if you had any thoughts on Karen Brewer’s future.
Oh, my goodness! [laughs] Karen was really one of my favorite characters to write about. Gosh, what would Karen be doing now? I have to say, I haven’t even really given it much thought because I so enjoy thinking of her as that sassy seven-year-old. I’m sure she’d be in charge of something, but I don’t know what. I always thought Kristy might go into politics. I’m not sure that Karen would, but I have a feeling she would be in charge, whatever she’s doing.

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