"Everybody wants to be known": Jamie Sumner's personal motivation for writing a character with SPD

SLJ spoke with the Roll With It author about being a theater kid, the healing power of the arts, and thoughtfully writing a character with Sensory Processing Disorder in her latest novel, Tune It Out.

There are sounds and sensations that are physically painful to Tune It Out's Lou Montgomery; her mom's determination to turn her into a star performer by putting her in front of noisy crowds in busy cafés doesn't help. When a dangerous incident moves Lou to a new home and school, she starts to find her own voice, and support for her invisible disability. SLJ spoke with Sumner about being a theater kid, the healing power of the arts, and thoughtfully writing a character with Sensory Processing Disorder.

Photo by Bethany Rogers

What was your inspiration for writing a story about a child with a Sensory Processing Disorder, which is often considered an invisible disability?
My son, Charlie, has a Sensory Processing Disorder. It can be one of the hardest diagnoses to understand, because, as you said, it is an invisible disability. His sensitivities are particular to sound. Noises like lawn mowers, hair dryers, and vacuums are traumatic and terrifying. If you are a parent and you’ve ever tried to explain away a nightmare to your child, you understand what it is to honor a fear. Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real to them. Charlie’s SPD is real, whether I can see it or feel it, and I wanted to reflect that experience in a story because it deserves to be acknowledged. Everybody wants to be known.

How did you put yourself into the body and mind of a child with SPD, especially when describing how Lou feels as she experiences a sensory trigger?
My priority in writing Lou’s story was to portray her experience as authentically as possible while fully acknowledging that it is not my experience. Research and sensitivity readers were crucial to the process. I had occupational therapists read the book, focusing specifically on Lou’s school counselor who works with her on understanding her SPD. Parts of the questionnaire she has Lou answer are straight out of old documents my son’s occupational therapist gave us while we were in the beginning stages of his diagnosis. I am also deeply grateful to the early readers with Sensory Processing Disorders; they volunteered to read and contribute to the descriptions of Lou’s trigger moments to really help me burrow deeper into her reality. If Lou’s experience rings true, it is because of them.

Lou’s mom makes choices that are sometimes harmful to her, which is something she comes to terms with over the course of the story. Can you talk about the evolution of the relationship between Lou and her mother?
Lou’s mom could easily have been a cliché —the stage mom who neglects her own child’s needs in pursuit of fame—but that’s not who she is. As you get to know her, you learn that she does want what’s best for Lou. She just doesn’t know what that is or how to give it. During their separation, Lou begins to work through her own wants and needs apart from her mother, who for the first 12 years of her life was the sole, loud voice of “truth” in both their lives. It’s only natural that when they reunite, they discover they’ve both changed in ways they couldn’t predict. It’s a complicated relationship that doesn’t necessarily have a clear “fix,” which I believe is true in so much of life.

There are so few books where kids who might be living in poverty or experiencing food insecurity can see themselves in the characters. You contrast that situation with the privilege that Lou has when she moves in with her aunt and uncle. Why was it important to show how both situations impacted her?
Lou carries around a great deal of shame for the years she spent living in motels and in their truck, wondering where the next meal would come from or if it would come at all. She craves stability and healing. But when she is suddenly thrust into a world of privilege—private school, iPhones, and new clothes—it doesn’t fix everything like she thought it would. If anything, it makes Lou feel her poverty all the more as she notices the things her classmates take for granted. While her new life does open up opportunities for her education and for her understanding of her Sensory Processing Disorder, she learns that money doesn’t fix everything. I wanted to be clear that in the end, the greatest change for Lou wasn’t her circumstance; it was that she discovered her own voice and how to fight for it.

[Read: Roll With It | SLJ Review]

Lou has not gone to school regularly and when she starts at her new private school, she becomes friends with Well, a wealthy classmate. While it seems like their backgrounds are completely different, Lou learns that Well has struggles of his own. How does this friendship help them both?
At their meet-cute, Well seems to have everything: boatloads of confidence, acting chops, friends, and a movie theater in his basement. Lou doesn’t even have a bed. She does, however, have a mother who loves her as best she can. Well’s father, on the other hand, is never home and when he is, doesn’t really see his son. Well is a wonderfully quirky kid who dresses like Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus” for Halloween, and wants to be a thespian more than anything. When his dad does take notice, it is only to shame him. As Lou and Well get closer, they both realize that there are different kinds of neglect, and they support each other as they fight to be known on their own terms.

There is something healing about music and the arts. Why is music important to Lou, and where did the musical theater aspect of the story come from
You can’t see me right now, but I’m holding up jazz hands. I love the arts! I found my place and my people in high school theater. It’s why Tune It Out is dedicated to my theater teacher. She is basically Mrs. Nicky in the story, but even better. There’s something about music and theater that open you up to see yourself and your experiences more vividly. It’s why we have playlists for first loves and break-ups and road trips. A song can often explain a feeling better than words. In the book, music is what bonds Lou and Well on her first day. It’s how she works through the worst episode of her SPD. It’s also what inspires her to learn more about her mother’s past and begin to understand her. I believe music is the ultimate healer. 

[Read More: How Sheltering in Place Shows Us a More Accessible World]

What is it like having your book released during a global pandemic? How have you adapted to use different platforms to connect with readers and create buzz?
This is the question of the year! I don’t think any of us will be able to process the full impact of this pandemic on our economy or our personal lives, until it becomes hindsight. I’m hoping it becomes a thing of the past soon.

As a former teacher, I miss school visits and book festivals and interacting with the kids face-to-face, but I am loving Zooming with classes! I have also been fortunate enough to collaborate with other authors for virtual events that I might not have been able to do otherwise due to distance and time. I am grateful to all the publishers and the indie bookstores who are thinking outside the box to get our novels out into the world. My own local independent bookstore, Parnassus Books in Nashville, started their first middle grade subscription box and chose Tune It Out as the inaugural selection. It is such an honor! I love the creativity that I have seen from everyone and I hope we can carry over some of these new strategies when this is all over, so that books and other events that promote literacy will be more accessible for everyone.

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