For Writers

Writing Neurodivergent Characters with Jenna Grinstead


Jenna Grinstead

I am honored to bring Jenna Grinstead to the blog today. I could go on and on about Jenna. She’s a great friend, a talented businesswoman, and a leader in her community. Jenna is also a talented author. Her current work-in-process is about a musically gifted teenager who, like Jenna, has Tourette Syndrome. Reading her manuscript really made me think about writing neurodivergent characters. I asked her, and she graciously agreed, to answer questions on how a neurotypical author might approach creating a neurodivergent character.

Advice on Developing Neurodivergent Character

Do you have advice for an author who is developing a neurodivergent character for their novel?

How to Co-Author a Book: 8 Tips You Should Consider When Co-Writing

Writing a neurodivergent character is an awesome way to make sure that all kids can see themselves in stories, so first I want to applaud anyone who is considering bringing this level of inclusivity to their stories. It is important as you consider creating this character that you understand the neurodivergence that you are depicting. Has this character been diagnosed with Autism, Tourette Syndrome, ADHD, OCD, or one of the other myriad diagnoses that make up neurodivergence? It’s important to understand the diagnoses, even if your character isn’t aware of theirs, as well as to do the research to understand the different ways that the diagnoses may affect different people. Sometimes girls are impacted differently than boys. I also suggest understanding the most updated language used within the community your character may belong to. And lastly, it is important to have more than one person from the community your character is from read your work and provide feedback. For example, even though I have Tourette Syndrome, for my latest work I had two members of the TS community provide insight and feedback on my main character and my story. It’s especially important to do this when depicting communities you don’t belong to in your stories.


Are there common pitfalls you’d like to warn authors to look out for when writing neurodivergent characters?

8 Pitfalls on the Path to Success | Inc.comThree key pitfalls I’d encourage authors to avoid include:

  • Leaning too much into stereotypes—this is a common one when folks write based on what they think or see in popular media versus what they know personally or find out through research. If your character is based on Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory it’s probably a good bet you may be leaning into stereotypes without realizing it. Many types of neurodivergence are on The Good, Bad And Ugly Of Empathyspectrums, which means they show differently for each individual person. Not every neurodivergent person is unaware of other’s feelings or afraid of germs, though some can be. Create well fleshed out characters through solid research and feedback from those within the community.
  • Depicting only the good or only the bad—neurodivergence can be as much a super-power as it can involve working through issues. It is especially important for kids to be able to see the positive. For example, my Tourette Syndrome allows me to hyperfocus. However, it’s also important not to create a saintly character that kids can’t relate to at all, or worse, a character that only exists to teach other kids a lesson or to inspire other kids. Show your neurodivergent characters as well-rounded kids who have both strengths and struggles.
  • Using neurodivergent characters as the punch line—this is something I see a lot. Neurodivergence should never be used to bring the comic relief to a story. It’s okay if it’s sometimes fun or even funny, but there is a line where the humor comes from the reader or other characters laughing at the neurodivergent character, and that is a harmful depiction, especially for children.


Quick Start - Research Strategies - Abell Library at Austin College

Do you have any advice for researching the unique characteristics of neurodivergent characters?

The internet is so useful, but we must learn how to use it properly - YP | South China Morning Post

The internet is a great place to start. Take the time to find reputable sources and check through your own searches whether there is controversy around a given source. For example, Autism Speaks, can be considered a controversial source by many within the autism community. It can also be helpful to find influencers in places like Instagram or TikTok who are focused on educating about their neurodivergence, but tread carefully into spaces that are meant for neurodivergent people to find each other. You may learn from those spaces but be respectful about communicating within them. It’s also helpful to find sensitivity readers in the area you are focusing on who can provide feedback. They are well worth the cost.


How can an author gain insight into how a neurodivergent character might view their uniqueness?

What is Insight? Insight Definition Explained

Reading or listening to first-hand accounts is a good way to start. Some resources, such as Tourette Association of America offer first person essays. There are also many influencers on Youtube, Instagram and TikTok who share their personal experiences, and there are many documentaries that interview people with lived experiences. If you have people in your life who are willing to share their experiences that can also be great, but tread lightly by first asking them if this is something they feel comfortable sharing.

Neurodivergence and Plot

Is it important that the characteristics that make a character neurodivergent impact the plot of the book?

Screenwriting 101: The Relationship Between Plot, Character and Story - The Script Lab

I don’t think it is important that neurodivergence serve the plot of the book any more than I think the book’s plot must be driven by a character’s race, ethnicity, geography or any other myriad characteristics that make up identity. In some cases, the plot may be interconnected with neurodivergence, such as when a child is starting a new school and must make new friends, for example. But I also think it’s very important to show neurodivergent characters living their lives like anyone else—solving mysteries, seeking friendships, basically all the things we humans do day-to-day.

Fully Formed Neurodivergent Characters

Do you have suggestions for how to flush out a full neurodivergent character?

Creating Fictional Characters

Each of us have a different approach to how we create our characters. For those who do detailed character sketches prior to writing, I suggest including neurodivergence as an element of those sketches. How does it impact the characters strengths, their world view, their childhood, their relationships, their approach to life? For pantsers, it may mean an edit round focused on that character’s neurodivergence, deepening how it contributes to the strengths and opportunities that the character deals with as the plot carries them through the story.

Important to Understand

Understanding Yourself and Others - Human ResourcesWhat is one thing you wish all people who write neurodivergent characters understood?

Many neurodivergent folks are not looking for cures to our condition. Many of us see neurodivergence as a super-power—a defining way of thinking that is essential to who we are and how we operate in the world. If I didn’t have Tourette Syndrome, I would likely not be the person I am today. My fingers and lips often move in ways I can’t control and that can be difficult to deal with on some days. Not everyone understands it or is kind about it. It takes a great deal of energy to manage my tics and suppress them in situations where I feel like I must. However, my Tourette Syndrome also allows me to hyperfocus to get things done. It may be part of why I’m good at writing. It took me way too many years to see and understand the positive parts of this disorder because I never heard or saw characters with anything but negative outcomes, when I saw them at all. Writers have a chance to change that, so I wish that every person writing a neurodivergent character understood that.


What is something people who write neurodivergent characters tend to get wrong?

5 Rookie Mistakes Nearly Every Budding Professional Makes (And How to Avoid Them)

Not all neurodivergence is the same. There are people who struggle to make friends or have social interactions, and many others who do not. Authors need to be specific, at least in their own mind, about what they are depicting and take the time to understand that every individual person has a slightly different experience.

No photo description available.Thank you for considering how to bring more neurodivergent characters to life. We, as authors, have a unique opportunity to write stories that allow all children to see themselves in a positive light!

Book Recommendations:

  • A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
  • Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse by Susan Vaught
  • Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan
  • Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry

You can find Jenna on:

Agent Spotlight: Kaitlyn Sanchez + PITCH PARTY!

I’m thrilled to have agent Kaitlyn Sanchez back at the Mixed-Up Files. I was beyond excited when she first became an agent and have loved watching her add clients and tons of sales. Kaitlyn has her finger on the pulse of the kidlit market and has endless enthusiasm and energy. She supports writers and illustrators through sharing her knowledge and running amazing contests. Kaitlyn is currently closed to queries…so this is a fantastic opportunity to see if your strongest MG pitch catches her eye. Please read all the pitch details at the bottom of the post before entering.

Kaitlyn’s Bio

Kaitlyn Sanchez (she/her) joined Bradford Literary in 2022 with two years of agenting experience under her belt. Kaitlyn is the proud co-creator and co-host of the Spring Fling Kidlit Contest and Kidlit Zombie Week as well as creator and co-host of the Kidlit Fall Writing Frenzy Contest. As a mom, wife, and middle school math teacher, Kaitlyn enjoys playing soccer, binge-watching TV shows, and, of course, reading, especially when she’s all cozied up with her husband and daughter reading together. Kaitlyn is an editorial agent and always works with her clients to make sure we’re putting out their best work. She’s highly communicative and invested in every aspect of helping her clients have a strong and happy career.

Kaitlyn is looking for children’s books (picture books through middle grade) in all categories, including fiction, graphic novels, nonfiction, and illustration. She is incredibly eclectic in her tastes, with a great affinity for emotional stories as well as funny stories. Kaitlyn is always looking for diversity in all forms, including but not limited to BIPOC, neurodiversity, and LGBTQ+. Kaitlyn loves working with artists, so she’s always on the lookout for great author-illustrators and graphic novelists.


What do you want in middle grade novels, Kaitlyn?

For middle-grade stories (including author-illustrated graphic novels), I tend to lean toward fiction. I enjoy coming-of-age stories, friendship stories, adventurous fast-paced stories, mysteries, intergenerational stories, empowering stories, stories with a bit of magic (high fantasy isn’t generally my thing, but I always enjoy a little magic), and quirky stories. I love learning new things in non-didactic ways, and in humor, I run the gamut: from well-placed puns to slapstick to high brow humor. I’d also be interested to see some scary stories that aren’t gruesome. NOTE: I’m not seeking chapter books.

Check out Kaitlyn’s Manuscript Wish List here.


Is there anything else you’re seeking?

I’m currently focusing my list on picture books and middle grade. I’d love to add more funny stories to my list in both of these categories. I love adventure, heartfelt, and unique stories, especially from new perspectives and by underrepresented authors and author-illustrators.


What wouldn’t be a good match for you right now?

Great question! I’m not currently looking for MG NF or script-only GN, and though I do love historical fiction, it would only be a fit if takes place in a time that there’s not many stories about. I’m also not the best fit for high fantasy though I do enjoy some magic. I hope that helps!


Do you have any tips you’d like to share?

There are so many fun tips, but I’ll try to share something that I haven’t shared in an interview before. In writing, there’s a balance between the real world and the book world. Some things you need to include to ensure the story follows everyday logic for readers and other things you can leave out. Similarly, there are some things that wouldn’t necessarily happen in the real world but it helps to have them in a book. For example, in the real world, you may just come up with an idea seemingly out of thin air, but in a book, it helps to propel the plot forward, connect different parts of the story, and keep the reader intrigued if there’s something that shows the reader why this idea came about. From seeing a display in a window that reminds the character of something to a friend saying something adjacent that triggers an idea to your character literally tripping over an idea, it feels more satisfying to the reader if there’s a reason as to why they came up with the idea.

I’d love to find out more about some of the books you’ve repped that are out in the world.

I’m so proud to be a small part in the journey of all of my clients books. Here are a few with some extra special highlights.

Mushroom Rain by Laura K. Zimmermann illustrated by Jamie Green is an award winning, JLG selection, and starred review book.

Whatever Comes Tomorrow by Rebecca Gardyn Levington illustrated by Mariona Cabassa is being used for inspiration for a K-12 arts contest.

DK Ryland’s Giraffe is Too Tall for This Book is currently the Target pick of the month for picture books this November.

Huge congrats to you and your clients, Kaitlyn! I know you started super-strong with picture books and are actively building your middle grade list (and with MG in higher demand than it’s been in the past few years, I can’t wait to see all the sales you make…maybe one of them will come from this Pitch Party). 


What are your favorite recent middle grade novels?

There are so many, it’s hard to choose! Some of my favorites are The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle, What Happened to Rachel Riley, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Front Desk, and Nevermoor.


Here’s more info about Kaitlyn’s contests!


Fall Writing Frenzy, which I started co-hosting with Lydia Lukidis, is open to all Kidlit writers (PB-YA) and instead of a hierarchy of winners, it’s a contest where each writer selected as a winner gets paired up with someone in the industry we hope they will work well with.


Spring Fling Kidlit, which I co-host with Ciara O’Neal, was the first contest created and is a blog contest for picture book writers to stretch their skills, create a community, and connect with industry professionals.


Kidlit Zombie Week: Are you ready to bring your dead manuscripts back to life? This is a revision week and pitch contest where you can work on manuscripts with tips and support of a wonderful community. It’s mainly for picture book writers because the hosts, which are a wonderful critique group I’m part of—six Ladies and a MANuscript—are picture book writers, but any Kidlit writer can participate.

Kaitlyn shouts out about these contests and other amazing opportunities on social media— make sure you follow her, so you’ll know the 2024 dates (and if you’re traditionally published, consider donating a prize!)

Twitter | Instagram | Bluesky


Rules for the Pitch Party

Before leaving your pitch in the comments, please read and follow all the rules.

  1. The pitch must be for a middle-grade manuscript or graphic novel (Kaitlyn isn’t currently looking for text-only graphic novels, so GN is only for author/illustrators).
  2. The work must be polished and complete.
  3. The pitch must be 60 words or less.
  4. Only one pitch per person.
  5. The pitch must be posted before Friday, December 1 at 11:59 PM (EST).
  6. Please remember, only the pitches that Kaitlyn comments on should be sent to her. Let’s be respectful of her time and the fact that she’s doing a special event just for us, even though she’s closed to queries.
  7. If you participate, please click the “Notify Me of Follow-Up Comments by Email” box so you’ll know if you received a response from Kaitlyn.

I’ll contact anyone Kaitlyn requests with info about what she’d like to see and how to submit to her. Good luck!

The adorable Team Sanchez logo is by Kaitlyn’s talented client, Maryam Khalifah.

A huge thank you to Kaitlyn for participating in this fun agent spotlight and Pitch Party! Now, you all know what she is and isn’t looking for. And I love her advice. 😊 To thank Kaitlyn for her generosity, please support her talented clients (Team Sanchez) by following them on social media and/or requesting their books from the library. You can find out more about her clients here.  

Kaitlyn is such an amazing agent. I’m crossing my fingers and toes for lots of pitch requests—and an offer or two.

Winter is Upon Us! (five winter themed middle grade novels)

I live in California so winter here means we can still get away with no socks, but I grew up in the east and I remember how exciting the first snow was and how we’d stare out the window, fingers crossed, just hoping for a snow day.

When I went looking for middle grade books that take place in the winter I was surprised by how few there were. Maybe it’s easier to write about kids when they have the freedom of summer break or can run around outside in the good weather.

But no matter what climate you live in, I think you’ll find this selection of winter themed novels plunges you right into the chilly heart of winter.


Dog Driven, by Terry Lynn Johnson

McKenna Barney is trying to hide her worsening eyesight and has been isolating herself for the last year. But at the request of her little sister, she signs up for a commemorative mail run race in the Canadian wilderness—a race she doesn’t know if she can even see to run.

Winning would mean getting her disease—and her sister’s—national media coverage, but it would also pit McKenna and her team of eight sled dogs against racers from across the globe for three days of shifting lake ice, sudden owl attacks, snow squalls, and bitterly cold nights.

A page-turning adventure about living with disability and surviving the wilderness, Dog Driven is the story of one girl’s self-determination and the courage it takes to trust in others.


The Girl Who Speaks Bear, by Sophie Anderson

“They call me Yanka the Bear. Not because of where I was found. Only a few people know about that. They call me Yanka the Bear because I am so big and strong.”

Discovered in a bear cave as a baby, 12-year-old Yanka dreams of knowing who she really is. Although Yanka is happy at home with her loving foster mother, she feels out of place in the village where the other children mock her for her unusual size and strength.

So when Yanka wakes up one morning to find her legs have become bear legs, she knows she has no choice but to leave her village. She has to find somewhere she truly belongs, so she ventures into the Snow Forest with her pet weasel, Mousetrap, in search of the truth about her past.

But deep in the forest there are many dangers and Yanka discovers that even the most fantastic stories she grew up hearing are true. And just as she draws close to discovering who she really is, something terrifying happens that could trap her in the forest . . . forever.


Icefall, by Matthew Kirby

Critically acclaimed author Matthew J. Kirby deftly weaves a stunning coming-of-age tale with chilling cleverness and subtle suspense that will leave readers racing breathlessly to the end.

Trapped in a hidden fortress tucked between towering mountains and a frozen sea, Solveig–along with her brother the crown prince, their older sister, and an army of restless warriors–anxiously awaits news of her father’s victory at battle. But as winter stretches on, and the unending ice refuses to break, terrible acts of treachery soon make it clear that a traitor lurks in their midst. Solveig must also embark on a journey to find her own path.

Yet, a malevolent air begins to seep through the fortress walls, as a smothering claustrophobia slowly turns these prisoners of winter against one another.Those charged with protecting the king’s children are all suspect, and the siblings must choose their allies wisely. But who can be trusted so far from their father’s watchful eye? Can Solveig survive the long winter months and expose the traitor before he manages to destroy a kingdom?


The Sea in Winter, by Christine Day

American Indian Youth Literature Award: Middle Grade Honor Book! In this evocative and heartwarming novel for readers who loved The Thing About Jellyfish, the author of I Can Make This Promise tells the story of a Native American girl struggling to find her joy again.

It’s been a hard year for Maisie Cannon, ever since she hurt her leg and could not keep up with her ballet training and auditions.

Her blended family is loving and supportive, but Maisie knows that they just can’t understand how hopeless she feels. With everything she’s dealing with, Maisie is not excited for their family midwinter road trip along the coast, near the Makah community where her mother grew up.

But soon, Maisie’s anxieties and dark moods start to hurt as much as the pain in her knee. How can she keep pretending to be strong when on the inside she feels as roiling and cold as the ocean?


Ruby in the Sky, by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

In Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo’s heartfelt middle-grade debut about family, friendship, and finding your own identity, Ruby Moon Hayes learns there’s more to a person’s story than what other people tell.

Twelve-year-old Ruby Moon Hayes does not want her new classmates to ask about her father. She does not want them to know her mother has been arrested. And she definitely does not want to make any friends. Ruby just wants to stay as silent and invisible as a new moon in the frozen sky. She and her mother won’t be staying long in Vermont anyway, and then things can go back to the way they were before everything went wrong.

But keeping to herself isn’t easy when Ahmad Saleem, a Syrian refugee, decides he’s her new best friend. Or when she meets “the Bird Lady,” a recluse named Abigail who lives in a ramshackle shed near Ruby’s house. Before long Ahmad and Abigail have become Ruby’s friends–and she realizes there is more to their stories than everyone knows.

As ugly rumors begin to swirl around the people Ruby loves, she must make a choice: break her silence, or risk losing everything that’s come to mean so much to her. Ruby in the Sky is a story of the walls we hide behind, and the magic that can happen when we’re brave enough to break free.