Book Review: Meet Me In Outer Space by Melinda Grace

As a School Counselor, books can be an integral part of a counseling program. In elementary school, there are tons of books to choose from that help incorporate what messages we want to send, but for older middle and high school students, the choices can be limited. I work with Melinda and she wrote a pretty amazing book that I think will definitely be great to either recommend to kids or be a book club addition. It's all about navigating life with a learning disability. Melinda was kind enough to write a little review of her book for me.
From Melinda:

Smart and unflinching, this #OwnVoices debut contemporary novel stars an ambitious college student who refuses to be defined by her central auditory processing disorder.

Edie Kits has a learning disability. Well, not a learning disability exactly, but a disability that impacts her learning. It isn't visible, it isn't obvious, and it isn't something she likes to advertise.

And for three semesters of college, her hard work and perseverance have carried her through. Edie thinks she has her disability under control until she meets her match with a French 102 course and a professor unwilling to help her out.

Edie finds herself caught between getting the help she needs and convincing her professor that she isn't looking for an easy out. Luckily for Edie, she has an amazing best friend, Serena, who is willing to stitch together a plan to ensure Edie's success. And then there's Hudson, the badly dressed but undoubtedly adorable TA in her French class who finds himself pulled into her orbit...

Chosen by readers like you for Macmillan's young adult imprint Swoon Reads, Meet Me in Outer Space is a sweet, heartachingly real story of love and college life by debut author Melinda Grace.

Book Details:

Barnes & Noble

Editorial Reviews
School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up—This YA debut offers an #OwnVoices look at what it is like to live with central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). Edie Kits is a college student studying fashion who hopes to spend the summer and beyond in Paris. Everything is on track except French 102. Learning a language is hard enough, but when you add Edie's CAPD into the mix, passing the class begins to feel impossible. Her professor is not particularly helpful when she asks for accommodations, but the TA for the class, Wesley Hudson, is more understanding and also more distracting. Hudson volunteers to tutor Edie in French, and soon it becomes clear that they both want more than just a tutoring relationship. Edie makes her desire to focus on passing French and going to Paris very clear, while Hudson makes his romantic intentions equally clear. Though readers may wish that Hudson respected Edie's intentions, the attraction between the two of them is well drawn. Edie and Hudson are both likable, if thinly developed, characters whom many will want to see together despite missteps from both of them. The ending feels a bit rushed and will leave teens wondering how Edie and Hudson will work out their issues. VERDICT A sweet college romance that features a disability experience not often represented in teen fiction. A good choice for most YA shelves.—Mindy Rhiger, Hennepin County Library, MN

An interview with the author, Melinda Grace:

I love how your lead character Edie has a learning disability - as growing up dyslexic was an interesting experience for myself as I grew to love reading and became a writer; not exactly the endgame for most dyslexics. I really had hoped the synopsis had explained 'what' disability' she has as I felt it would have rocked knowing it straight-off especially for those of us who look for characters who see the world and learn about the world in similar ways of alternative processing. Is there anything you can share about Edie and her unique learning lens to clue us in a bit about her journey?

Edie has a Central Auditory Processing Disorder, a disability that has several factors that can impact learning as well as daily life functioning. The basics (and I say this with the disclaimer that not all CAPD looks the same) are: difficulty processing speech sounds in noisy environments, difficulty distinguishing between sounds, and difficulty filtering background noise. What this looks like in real life, for me, is that I struggle to maintain conversation in a noisy setting, such as a restaurant or at a concert. I often mishear words, though my brain does try to put the sounds together to make something that makes sense within the context of the conversation (often times it’s comical, other times it can be embarrassing). At times, tone of voice and sarcasm are lost on me which can be very frustrating. I can be inconsistent with my responses in conversation. I tend to “zone-out” during presentations or lectures if there is distracting background noise. I watch people’s faces when they speak as a coping strategy, not only does it help me focus on the conversation, but also to distinguish tone and emotion through facial expression.

For MEET ME IN OUTER SPACE, I gave Edie all of the behavioral characteristics that I have. She asks people to repeat themselves. She struggles to take notes during class lecture. She mishears conversation and attempts to piece the conversation together in a way that makes sense (though it doesn’t always work). She watches people’s faces when they speak. She also “zones-out”, gets distracted, and yells at herself when she doesn’t understand something.

The crux of this story lies in a person’s agency. Edie was diagnosed with CAPD at a young age, so the assistance she received in elementary school through high school was what she needed, based on her disability, to even the playing field. Unfortunately, not everything a student with a disability receives K-12th grade (i.e. program modifications, testing accommodations, assistive technology) transfers to higher education. In Edie’s case, one of the program modifications she received in high school is what’s called Language Exemption (in NYS it is termed as such), which means that a student with this disability (along with several others) are deemed “significantly disadvantaged” in learning a second language in what is typically a requirement for graduation in New York State. Their Individualized Educational Plan or IEP legally dictates that a student with a Language Exemption can graduate without fulfilling this requirement. Unfortunately, an IEP does not transfer laterally to the college-level. In Edie’s case, a 101 and 102 Language Other Than English course is a required general education course (as it is in many colleges). Her story begins with her seeking help from the course professor and being dismissed. She has to disclose her disability in order to get him to acknowledge her need for assistance and is then given a canned response and shooed away. This is how Edie’s journey begins.

Your book title charmed me, I must admit - there was just something about it that spoke to me and said, "You need to interview this author!" Was this a first choice of yours or was it part of the Swoon Reads team who selected it? I was curious about how it came about and how it re-directs back to Edie and the story?

MEET ME IN OUTER SPACE was always the title of this book. In fact, it was the title before the book was written and charmed the editors at Swoon Reads as well. The book's title came from the song Stellar by Incubus. I’d been listening to the song while in the car, thinking about writing, as I often do, and had the thought: “In what context might someone tell another person to meet them in outer space?” Which then led me to think “this is something I would hear someone say…” because it totally is something I would mishear someone says. That day I went home and wrote the scene in which Hudson asks Edie to meet him in outer space, a conversation she mishears that follows her in a charming way throughout the remainder of the book.

How important was it for you to inter-lace humor into the novel and to show a lighter side where levity can take you a long way in life to offset adversities, strife and the struggles of growing up? What was your favorite one liner or phrase that really highlighted the heart of the novel?

I use humor all time in both my day job and my personal life. I feel that humor can help pull a person out of the moment just long enough to reset a conversation, or change the trajectory of your day or mood. In Meet Me In Outer Space, I used situationally-humorous or situationally-awkward situations to give the scenes as realistic of a feeling as possible. I wanted the reader to feel the same awkward and funny embarrassment Edie felt, or the same silly giddiness Serena felt. For Edie and her disability, she doesn’t always find the humor in her life or in what happens to her which is why I made sure that the people in her life were able to make jokes and poke fun at the things that she could laugh about while taking seriously the things Edie couldn’t joke about.

I don’t have a favorite one-liner or phrase, but my favorite scene by far is when Hudson discovers the sketches in Edie’s French notebook of him. The situation. The conversation. The whole thing is awkward and silly and swoon worthy. I still cover my face when I read it.

Hudson is a character whose working through himself - meaning, he hasn't yet fully accepted who he is or how he is living his life. His journey is about self-worth and self-acceptance - inspired by a song (which I felt was especially clever) - what can you share about Hudson as being your favourite part of his outlook and personality?

When Hudson wipes his mouth self-consciously and proclaims to Edie that he ate “about ten tacos” early that day, that is him in a nutshell. He says what he’s thinking and he is unapologetically himself. So, yes, he is still figuring himself out and yes, his journey is about self-worth and self-acceptance, but more so his journey is about embracing the parts of him that are weird and quirky and funny. When I originally wrote Hudson, he was inspired by the song Not Myself by John Mayer. The Hudson in the original version of Meet Me In Outer Space is a slightly different person than the one you know in the finished book. Although, despite that, he is still an imperfect person wondering if there is someone out there for him.

I definitely understand how difficult it is learning in traditional education with a learning disability that isn't widely acceptable as I grew up in the 80s to mid-90s - having over-compensated for my dyslexia didn't win me any favours when it hindered my progress to where teachers were a bit less than open about helping a student who still had a learning difficulty they didn't fully understand. How did you show Edie's truth and counter that with what she encountered in college?

Edie’s story isn’t my story, despite the fact that this is a #OwnVoices novel. Edie and I share a disability. We share a common struggle. We share a dread for learning a language other than English, but where we differ is that Edie was diagnosed with CAPD at a young age, I was diagnosed as an adult, long after I had completed my master’s degree and started my career. Edie knew her truth from the start, what she had to learn was that there are times when you need to ask for help and that sometimes your pride gets in the way of forward motion. There are several times when Edie questions why she has to tell anyone about her disability, but once she is honest with herself she knows why she has to disclose her disability...she doesn’t like it and certainly complains about it, but she does it because she knows it’s what she needs.

I also love how you championed that whatever makes us individually unique and different doesn't define what we can accomplish or limit us in any particular way. In many regards, I always considered being dyslexic was a gift as it gave me a unique way of seeing the world. How important was it to show this growth and acceptance in Edie?

It was especially important for me to ensure that Edie succeeds in a realistic way because so much of Edie and her journey is based on real people and experiences; my own and three people who are very close to me. I didn’t want Edie to finish the class with an A, or even a B...I wanted to show her struggle. I truly wanted her to barely pass and be okay with that. When I took Italian in college I earned a D+ in both 101 and 102, and you know what, I was proud and relieved to receive those two (just barely) passing grades. In Edie’s case, she never saw (and probably never will) see her disability as a gift, though she doesn’t view it as a burden either. She refers to it as a “struggle” several times throughout the book and I think that sums it up best. Edie views her disability as an inconvenience and while certainly not everyone views their own disability this way, she does based on her own life experiences and interactions with the people who should have supported her most (i.e. her teachers, friends, etc). I looked at the three people I used as reference and found a happy medium with their perspectives on their own disabilities. They ranged from “my disability isn’t any big deal” to “my disability changed my life in these not-so-great ways...”.

In the end, I don’t think Edie accepts her disability as much as she accepts the fact that asking for help doesn’t make her less-than. For Edie, it was having to disclose her disability and ask for help that she truly needed to learn to accept and embrace. That process is different for everyone. It was different for me and it was different for my friends and family that helped contribute to Edie’s journey.

Often, acceptance comes in baby steps and stages. It comes slowly. There is no right or wrong way for people to make the journey to acceptance. This book isn’t meant to represent every person with CAPD or a disability, this book is meant to represent Edie’s journey (as winding as it is) and her personal growth.

As you've written an inclusive novel about a character most haven't met before what are your plans for writing another character whose life experience might differ from the majority as it feels this is your niche? What is the takeaway your hoping readers will realise as they meet your characters?

I have written two other manuscripts with main characters who fit into underrepresented communities, unfortunately neither have yet to be acquired, but I’m definitely not giving up hope. I seem to have a passion for writing stories about people who have never had their story told. This does seem to be my calling without meaning it to be.

In this case I want my readers to take away a sense of belonging and understanding. Growing up I never read a book with a Jewish main character (unless it was directly about the Holocaust). One of the small things I do is make all my main characters Jewish because it’s what I know and it gives another layer to inclusion that isn’t typically there. If readers can’t relate to Edie’s learning disability, perhaps they can relate to the stress of learning to read the torah for their bar/bat mitzvah. Perhaps they can relate to the “Jewish Mother Guilt” that Edie’s mom lays on my mother would (and still does). Or perhaps they can relate to her lack of athleticism. Or her tunnel-vision when it comes to her passion projects. Or her stubbornness. Or maybe they can simply relate to loving someone, but pushing that person away for self-preservation.

When you’re not researching and writing stories what uplifts your spirit the most?

I love my day job. I am a school counselor in an elementary school and I love it. It has its ups and downs, like all jobs, but I can honestly say that I wake up every morning happy to have my job. I love the students. The weird things they say. The funny jokes they tell. And even their hardships. I love watching them succeed through adversity. I don’t always leave at the end of the day sure that I’ve done all I could do, but overall I know that I make a difference. I truly love watching people succeed.

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