Shelagh's Summer Specials: Joel Yanofsky

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Shelagh Rogers interviewed many fabulous authors this past season on The Next Chapter. Every now and then, she would have a conversation so compelling, juicy, riveting or fascinating that it deserved more time than the radio show could allow. So, The Next Chapter has offered up extended versions of those conversations as special webisodes and podcasts.

Every Thursday in July and August, CBC Books will bring you Shelagh's Summer Specials, an encore presentation of those great full-length conversations.

Shelagh's Summer Special this week is her conversation with Joel Yanofsky about his memoir Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism. It chronicles a year in the life of Joel's family and is his attempt to understand 10-year-old Jonah's unique relationship with the world. An edited version of this interview originally aired on the October 8, 2011, episode.

We hope you enjoy!

You can hear The Next Chapter on CBC Radio One every Monday at 1 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m. (a half hour later in Newfoundland).


Joel Yanofsky has always been a keen reader and his career as a book reviewer came out of that. So, after his son Jonah was diagnosed with autism he did what had always worked in the past, he looked to books to help him make sense of this new chapter in his life. And the books helped a little, but what has really made a difference for Joel is writing his own book on the subject: Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism. It follows a year in Jonah's life, a month by month account of the social and intellectual challenges Jonah faces as he makes his way through Grade 5, but it's also about the things Joel learns as he sees the the world through his son's eyes.

Yanofsky wrote the book as a way to sort through his own feelings about raising a child with autism. Jonah was diagnosed at 4 with "a whiff of autism." He was a high functioning and happy child, but Joel soon realized that even "a whiff of autism" wasn't going to be easy to deal with. He found himself becoming angry and frustrated with parenting and with Jonah. So he decided to sit down and make sense of it all — and decided to write a book about it. "In some ways, this book was a way to start a conversation, and my own kind of conversation, with him," Joel told Shelagh Rogers. "It was a good start for me to get a little closer to him."


Yanofsky also wanted to use this opportunity to write a real memoir, one that didn't offer artificial hope or gloss overs the struggles than a family with a child with autism faces. He wanted to be free of the "tyranny of a happy ending." Joel is extraordinarily proud of his son and his accomplishments, but he recognizes that parenting is a lifelong journey and Jonah's autism is a lifelong diagnosis. For that reason, he chose to focus on the small advances Jonah made over the course of the year, such as learning to ride a bike, asking to read Green Eggs and Ham after a particularly difficult moment. Jonah's personal growth is "an incremental thing you have to get used to," Yanofsky acknowledged, and he felt that not enough books or experts deal with that. "Nothing is going to happen in leaps and bounds. it happens incrementally, but you don't know where it's going."

In the course of writing the book, Yanofsky learned as much about himself as he did about his son. After the diagnosis, he found "it was harder to be a father and it was harder to be a good person because I was cranky all the time." But in the process of writing, he realized he's not alone in feeling this way. Besides, this crankiness added to the richness of the character he was writing about in Bad Animals — as long as he wrote about it honestly. "In a memoir, your first obligation is to be as honest as you can be," Yanofsky said. "Sometimes it means putting yourself at risk, putting yourself out there."

Jonah is now 12 years old. He loves wordplay and puns. He is unimpressed with his father's writing career and book. His parents are thinking about sending him to a sleepaway camp for the first time. And even though it took his father a while to believe it, Jonah has a bright, rich future ahead of him. "I wish him to be happy and safe and find his own way."

As for the book's future, Yanofsky hopes that by sharing his story with others, that by being honest and funny about his failures and frustrations but also about how autism strengthened him and his family, he can help parents going through the same thing. "It's only my story but I think it can connect with other people."

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