This month we caught up with Chris Bonnello (Autistic Not Weird), autistic teacher, international author and speaker, to discuss the release of his second book Underdogs: Tooth and Nail. The Underdogs series features neurodiverse heroes in a dystopian future!
Chris, congratulations on the announcement of your second book, Underdogs: Tooth and Nail, and its release in June 2020! Tell us about the Underdogs series and what readers can expect with your second book?
Underdogs is a neurodiverse dystopia series (I know, how often do you hear those words together?), which takes place during a near-future war. The whole of Britain has been imprisoned in giant walled cities, guarded by innumerable clone soldiers. Only a dozen people remain free in the abandoned countryside, and most of them are teenagers who escaped an attack on their special school! They spend their days striking back in attempt to free the British people (ironically, those who put them at the bottom of the social food chain), trying to play to their strengths in a world that has always defined them by their weaknesses.
The second book in the series was released just over a month ago. Without giving any spoilers, the war takes a turn that impacts the students on a far more personal level and hits them where they’re vulnerable. Because as apocalyptic as the storyline is, I’ve always felt that it’s the characters who make the books interesting.
Tell us about the neurodiversity of characters in the Underdogs series.
The Oakenfold students in the series are:
- Ewan (aged 16), an autistic lad with PDA who has been excluded from six mainstream schools and has some huge personal issues to deal with. He’s the lead soldier and main character.
- Kate (16), an autistic girl with severe anxiety. She seems to be the most popular character, largely because she does one hell of a job of confronting the things she’s afraid of.
- Jack (17), a geeky video game/dinosaur fan diagnosed with Asperger’s, who I swear isn’t actually based on me.
- Charlie (15), a lad with ADHD and anger issues, and Ewan’s best friend (or “Temper Twin” as they’re known together).
- Raj (15), a dyslexic lad with a brilliant detective mind, who doesn’t seem to mind that he’s barely semi-literate because he knows how clever he really is.
- Simon (14), a humorous lad with Down’s Syndrome, selectively mute but communicates well in his own ways.
- Mark (18), a lumbering giant with an unclear history, other than the fact that he spent a year in a youth offenders’ institution.
- Gracie (15), a girl with global development delay (GDD) who’s spent most of her life lacking independence opportunities.
Of course, I’ve worked extremely hard to ensure that the characters aren’t walking representations of their conditions or neurotypes. Charlie doesn’t represent all people with ADHD, for example – he represents Charlie. There’s a huge responsibility when writing neurodiverse characters to make sure they’re actual characters first and foremost, and sadly quite a few writers forget that.
How did the second Underdogs book come about? Was it something you had planned to write or did COVID isolation give you some extra creativity time at the keyboard?
Funnily enough, its first draft was written in 2011! The first two books were written around a decade ago as a coping mechanism for being unemployed at the time. It’s mindblowing to see both books in print, on my desk next to me right now. That was never the plan when I started out.
With that said, lockdown has helped my productivity. There are another two books in the series planned, and I spent lockdown writing the grand finale to Underdogs 4, the end of the war and the resolution of the characters’ stories. It was an enormous self-esteem boost (at a time when there wasn’t much to be happy about), knowing that after ten years, I finally finished the series.
More than that, I started it as an unemployed teacher with anxiety issues, and finished it as a published novelist, successful writer and international speaker. If only I could go back in time and talk to my younger self…
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
I guess when I was eleven, and writing Sonic the Hedgehog fan-fiction for my younger cousin! It took me several years to start writing stories with my own original characters in my own original universes, but fan-fiction was a massively important stepping stone for me as a writer (and it gave me and my cousin some wonderful memories too).
As an adult though – after writing a novel for my first primary school class in 2012 (I still can’t believe I managed that while teaching), about the adventures of a homeless boy, some of their feedback made me realise it was time to stop making excuses and start making a series effort to get published. A few years later I rewrote Underdogs and it got picked up by Unbound. Life hasn’t quite been the same since.
As an autistic teacher, international author and speaker, are there any key themes you want your readers to take away from the Underdogs series?
I suppose the main ones include:
- Define yourself by your strengths, not your weaknesses.
- Bravery isn’t being unafraid. It’s being afraid and doing it anyway.
- You don’t need to “get rid” of your differences in order to become the best version of yourself you can be.
- The right thing is not always the easy thing… but it is always the right thing.
- Never, ever underestimate those who think differently – it’s often their ideas and efforts which make the most values differences.
- And the Oakenfold Code, as often referenced by the characters: “the problems are not the person.”
When can fans expect to see the third Underdogs book, or too soon to ask?
It’s technically too soon to ask, as it would be irresponsible for me to say anything before a contract is signed. But books three and four are now written and ready to go as soon as the time is right!
Where can we read more about the Underdogs series and purchase your books?
Thanks for asking! If you’re Australian (as I suspect most of your readers are), the first book’s Amazon page is here: https://www.amazon.com.au/Underdogs-Chris-Bonnello/dp/1789650356/
Outside of Australia, all the other places to order are here: https://chrisbonnello.com/ordering/
In terms of finding out more though, the best place to go is its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Underdogsnovel and there’s an information page about it here too: https://chrisbonnello.com/underdogs/