Friday, February 18, 2011

Harmonic Feedback: The Girl Who Sees the World Differently

Harmonic Feedback, by Tara Kelly, is the story of sixteen-year-old Drea. She's been shuttled all over the place by her mother, a well-meaning woman who can't provide stability for her daughter. When they finally land in Bellingham, Washington, with Drea's grandmother, Drea is faced, once again, with negotiating foreign social terrain. She meets a purple-haired girl with a beautiful voice and self-destructive taste in boys, and a boy who has wicked piano skills and no interest in discussing his past. They become the first friends Drea has ever had.

Drea sees and experiences the world differently than most people. She notices things others don't (she has an incredible ear for rhythm and layers of sound but cannot tolerate the noise of the vacuum) and doesn't notice things others do (she has trouble reading others' subtle nonverbal cues).

She has been diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder and ADHD. But those diagnoses don't define her. They are just the way others have tried to encompass her behaviors, responses to sensory stimuli and social situations, preoccupations, and habits.

Back in December, I did a post on writing young adult characters with mental and emotional disorders. And this book? Yeah. Nailed it.

In that post, I recommended authors go for five things:

Individuality: no stereotyping. People diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are as varied as people who have brown hair. Yes, they share some characteristics, but even those look different from person to person. Tara Kelly paints a nuanced picture of Drea, and I never got the sense she was going for the easily identifiable symptom or description. And what I really, really loved--you see how Drea's characteristics are double-edged. Both weakness and strength. Vulnerability and protection.

Depth: regardless of diagnoses, a person is a person with interests, preferences, passions, weaknesses. Drea is a fascinating girl with her own way of seeing the world. I know nothing about music production, but reading about it from Drea's perspective made me listen to my own music a little more attentively. No doubt about it, Drea is a fully realized, 3-D character. You can't explain her with a label, because there's just too much THERE there (and this goes for the other characters in the book as well).

Reality: despite her intelligence and sensitivity, Drea shows some impairment. This is most apparent when she's trying to read others' social cues or being bombarded with sensory stimulation. Drea has her flaws and weaknesses, and they happen to be identifiable symptoms of Asperger's. They are often subtle, and she's able to compensate quite a bit because she's bright and a quick study. But they do get in her way. She's acutely aware of it, too, which makes the reader hurt for her at certain points.

Accuracy: I marked places in the book where Drea's symptoms make an appearance. She does meet criteria for Asperger's disorder. The ADHD was a little more subtle. Drea takes medication, and that likely alleviates many of her attention-regulation difficulties during school and afternoon hours. As I read Harmonic Feedback, I was thinking it was so clear the author had done her homework, and then when I got to the end and read the author's note, it turns out that's sort of an understatement. Tara Kelly has lived her homework; she has ADHD and her brother has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. But she didn't stop with her own personal experience. She lists websites and resources she's found helpful from both a personal and clinical perspective.

I know nothing about wah pedals.
But Tara Kelly does.

Perspective: HARMONIC FEEDBACK IS NOT ABOUT ASPERGER'S OR ADHD. It's about a really complex, fascinating individual and some friends who have their own issues. It's about how they struggle to get over their own insecurities and produce something beautiful together, and how they struggle to keep it from slipping away when those insecurities threaten to destroy them.

For those reasons and so many more, Harmonic Feedback ate my Saturday. I couldn't put it down.

In a future post, I'll talk about how I assess and diagnose. I specialize in working with young children, so I am often the first person to evaluate a child, and sometimes the first to say words like "autistic" or "developmental disorder" to a family. I agonize about every single diagnostic call and treatment recommendation. Perhaps that's why some of the descriptions of Drea's experiences with professionals were a little hard for me to read. But in a good way. A way that made me want to work harder.

Have you read Harmonic Feedback? What did you think of it? How about other books depicting characters with diagnosed mental, emotional, or developmental disorders? Or are you writing a character who happens to have a diagnosis? How do you go about it?


  1. I haven't read it, but I appreciate your critical reading of it. I'd be worried about an author making Aspergers into the only thing that defines a character. Looks like this book got it right.

  2. What a fascinating post. I truly was intrigued, not only by your description of the book itself, but your analysis of it and the problems of stereotyping by trait. I'm happy to have found your blog, Roland

  3. I read and loved Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly.

    I'm glad to see a piece of such intelligent writing about this book.

  4. Hmmm ... I'm guessing this is YA? I might put it on my list. Maybe.

    I also enjoy posts about books that have people with problems. Makes me seem more normal. LoL. Kidding.


  5. I'm definitely checking this one out. My 11 yo son has AS and ADHD, but that's definitely not what defines him.

  6. Epic post! I've never read a YA book with this kind of main character, so I'll definitely check it out!

    The main character of my WIP has been diagnosed with a disorder that cripples her in certain aspects, but I'd like to think she's more than that (as you well suggest every MC with a disorder should be). It's both fun and scary to write this type of character. Hopefully, reading one will take the edge off :)

  7. This book sounds really interesting and I want to check it out. Thanks for sharing!

  8. You're a "practicing child psychologist"? Hope you get it right one day :)

  9. Great review and commentary, Sarah. Harmonic Feedback sounds like a super read!

  10. wow! your recommendations always get added to my tbr list!!! i bet this one will be a great study.