Holly Robinson Peete discusses collaborating with her daughter on a new book published by Scholastic, My Brother Charlie, about a young autistic boy.
You may know Holly Robinson Peete from way back when in her role as Judy Hoffs on 21 Jump Street. Or for her role as Vanessa Russell on Hangin' with Mr. Cooper. But lately, Peete's taken on a new role — autism advocate. P&C talked with her about My Brother Charlie, the fictional picture book she wrote with her daughter Ryan based on her experiences growing up with her autistic twin brother, R.J.
Parent & Child: What made you decide to write My Brother Charlie with your daughter, Ryan?
Holly Robinson Peete: There was no major children's book advocating autism acceptance in my kids' school library or classrooms . . . it was time to change that.
P&C: How has working on the book together as mother and daughter helped both of you understand R.J.'s autism? How has it affected your mother/daughter relationship?
Peete: It was a dream to collaborate with Ryan. She is a thoughtful young lady with a big old benevolent heart. Our nickname for her is "Mother Theresa." We couldn't be more proud of her.
P&C: Was R.J. eager to lend his input in developing the story? What did he want to be included in the book?
Peete: R.J. loves the book and gets that it will help children be less scared of autism. He loves the illustrations and always says, "Is that supposed to be me?" He was especially thrilled that his dog Harriet is in the book. Harriet has been an amazing "thera-pet" for R.J.
P&C: Why did you feel Scholastic was a good choice to publish your book?
Peete: I pitched the book to several houses-only Scholastic understood the global impact and the potential to change the way we view children with autism that My Brother Charlie could have. Scholastic understands this is an important book that should have a place in every children's library in the country.
P&C: What is the message of My Brother Charlie?
Peete: Children with autism are beautifully unique, lovable, and valuable to society. It was important to us to help parents present autism in an unscary light.
P&C: What has it been like to see Ryan interact with R.J. as they've grown up? Do they share the same interests? Are they close?
Peete: They're so cute together now, but from ages 2 1/2 to 6 he rarely connected with her. It was demoralizing for her and she often felt like the "invisible twin." We feel so blessed that he had a breakthrough and has formed a true bond with her.
P&C: How have your other two sons, Robinson and Roman, dealt with their brother's autism? Does My Brother Charlie explain how other members of the family can understand autism?
Peete: Those boys have been amazing little therapists for R.J., because you can't ignore a pestering little brother! Seriously, they have rallied around their big brother and even look up to him. Ryan really wants siblings to know that she understands how hard it can be for them, but that being there for an autistic sibling and advocating for him can not only help educate other children but make you a better person as well.
P&C: What do you want parents to get from this book?
Peete: I found that parents were more fearful to speak about autism than some of their kids. My Brother Charlie will help them articulate the value of these children to society.
P&C: What do you want children to understand about autism through this book?
Peete: That a child with autism can make a really cool friend. It just takes some consistent patience and understanding.
Samantha Brody is the senior editor of Scholastic Parent & Child.