With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, vol. 1
By Keiko Tobe
Rated All Ages
Yen Press, $14.99
Japan may have manga for every topic, as we are so often told, but the range of titles translated into English is still pretty narrow. So I was very curious about Yen Press’s debut volume, With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, a fictional story with a real-life message. Mainly, I wondered if it would be well-intentioned but awful, the way educational comics usually are over here.
Fortunately, that is not the case. With the Light is an entertaining soap opera that doesn’t preach or talk down to the reader. The dialogue does include lots of information about autism, but the story keeps moving with plenty of drama, so it never seems dry.
Unfortunately, our introduction to the family is a bit over the top. Sachiko is the saintly mother, struggling to care for her child, Hikaru, who is behaving strangely: he doesn’t like to be held, he doesn’t return her affection, and he cries. A lot. Sachiko’s husband, Masato, is a cold-hearted jerk who complains that the baby’s crying is interfering with his sleep. Sachiko’s perfectionist mother-in-law piles on the scorn, blaming Hikaru’s weird behavior on Sachiko’s poor discipline and reliance on convenience foods and disposable diapers.
Sachiko is concerned about her child, but she initially resists the idea that he has an incurable disorder Still, Hikaru is clearly not like the other kids in his play group. When his tantrums disrupt a family event Sachiko finally takes him to the unfortunately named “Social Welfare Center,” where kind-hearted counselors offer help and reassurance. Sachiko sees other parents with autistic children and realizes she is not alone; her idea of “normal” begins to shift almost immediately. Eventually her husband and mother-in-law come to accept the situation as well in a pair of sudden conversions that don’t quite ring true; it’s hard to believe anyone could become so perfectly patient and understanding overnight.
Tobe does better when she is depicting the social politics that swirl around any school or day care. The mothers who push their children too hard, who are jealous of others, or who simply are mean because they can’t handle a child who is “different”—they all make their appearances, and there’s plenty of entertaining gossip and cattiness to keep the story moving.
As Hikaru progresses through preschool to elementary school, the story depicts many attitudes to disability, from teachers and principals who don’t want to deal with it at all to those who embrace it as a challenge. Somehow, Sachiko always manages to find caring, cheerful teachers and administrators who embrace Hikaru and his differences with enthusiasm. This aspect is obviously idealized, but the reactions of the other parents and children are not. And Tobe stresses an important point: Often a small accommodation can make a big difference, and many of changes that teachers make for Hikaru benefit the other students as well.
I do wish the book depicted more of Hikaru’s inner life. In a few places, the story shifts to Hikaru’s point of view, and that goes a long way toward explaining how he behaves. I know that this is difficult, because autism is poorly understood, but it almost seems like Hikaru is off in the corner for most of the book. The story is really more about Sachiko learning to cope with him than Hikaru himself.
Despite its didactic qualities, this book works well as entertainment, and I really got wrapped up in the story. While Sachiko’s trials are exaggerated, they have a universal quality: She looks at her child and wonders if his problems are all her fault; she feels relief when she meets other mothers who face the same struggles. You don’t have to be the mother of a child with a disability to relate to that.
Tobe also uses the conventions of manga very well. Interestingly, the two characters drawn in classic big-eyed manga style are Sachiko and Hikaru, but the effects are very different: Sachiko is usually trembling with emotion, while Hikaru is usually looking off to the side or staring into space. Most of the adults are drawn with smaller eyes and animated features that express their different personalities well. Tobe also composes the pages well, shifting points of view, varying her panel style, and moving the eye along with plenty of visual cues. And interestingly, although this omnibus volumes spans 500 pages, she retains a remarkable consistency of story. Characters from an early chapter recur later on, and even simple elements like a ticking clock that show up early in the volume turn out to have significance in later chapters.
By the end of the book, which includes two essays about autistic children, I felt like I knew a lot more about autism. I also was hungry for more. With the Light manages to be informative without being preachy, and if the story isn’t always realistic, it definitely kept me reading. This book is very different from anything on the market right now, and I certainly hope it finds its audience. It deserves to.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher.)