Janet Tashjian is the author of the My Life series, illustrated by her son, Jake Tashjian, which includes My Life as a Book, My Life as a Cartoonist, My Life as a Gamer, and My Life as a Youtuber. Janet is also the author of the Einstein the Class Hamster series, illustrated by Jake, and the Sticker Girl series. Their new book, Hannah Sharpe, Cartoon Detective, is an illustrated mystery adventure about a young cartoonist on the autism spectrum and her cartoon alter ego. We asked the mother-son duo to discuss their collaborative process and representing neurodiverse characters with authenticity.

Janet: Dude! We’re having a conversation in Publishers Weekly!

Jake: On Hannah Sharpe, Cartoon Detective, our 14th book together!

Janet: This is our third series collaboration as mother/son, author/illustrator. Do you think this book was more difficult or is it getting easier with each one?

Jake: Harder, for sure.

Janet: Because the main character has autism and we had to deal with a lot of issues that were sensitive and close to home?

Jake: No—because of Covid!

Janet: As Hannah would say, that lockdown was a real curveball.

Jake: Curveballs are bad anyway, but that was the worst.

Janet: We kept busy, though—you did an amazing amount of illustrations for this new book. It’s almost like a graphic novel.

Jake: We did 10 My Life As… books with hundreds of illustrations in each one, but Hannah was in full color with lots of formats and panels. It was fun, but took a lot of time.

Janet: And we got to use Dusty Pickle! You want to tell PW about Dusty?

Jake: Well, Dusty is a cowgirl pickle that I’ve been drawing for years. It all started when you dropped a pickle on the floor at Grammy’s house and it had some dust on it when you picked it up. You turned to me and said, “Jake, please draw me a character named Dusty Pickle.” The fact that I made her a cowgirl made you so happy that she’s become one of the main characters that we always go back to.

Janet: This is where my mom would interject that her house never has dust in it and that incident was a fluke and a one-time thing.

Jake: Sorry, Grammy!

Focusing on [Hannah's] disabilities without looking at her massive strengths wouldn't be representative of any kid on the spectrum we know.
– Janet Tashjian

Janet: In our My Life as A… series, Derek has a reading disability like you do. He draws his vocabulary words the same way you did when you were in elementary and middle school. In Hannah Sharpe, Cartoon Detective, Hannah is on the autism spectrum, also like you. Was it weird to put her feelings and behaviors under a microscope since she deals with some of the same situations you’ve had to deal with in real life?

Jake: It wasn’t really weird; it’s just reality. But I can’t really say it was fun, watching her dodge all the curveballs that came her way.

Janet: You’ve gotten so much better at dealing with curveballs over time. Watching Hannah struggle really brought me back to you at that age. You had—and have—more perseverance in the face of obstacles than almost anyone I know.

Jake: Aw, thanks.

Janet: I’m serious. Hannah and you have that persistence in common.

Jake: Well, like we always say, “Everyone has some kind of special needs.”

Janet: It’s like me when someone’s talking on their phone in a store or coffee shop. It totally shuts me down and I have to struggle to focus.

Jake: Or you trying to use the machine in a parking garage. Or you wandering around the house looking for your reading glasses when they’re on your head. Or…

Janet: We get it, dude. But one of the main things I wanted to do in telling Hannah’s story was to make it funny. You and your friends are pretty hilarious with great imaginations and incredible memories for detail; it was important to me to show the creative side of Hannah with all the humor that comes with it. Focusing on her disabilities without looking at her massive strengths wouldn’t be representative of any kid on the spectrum we know.

Jake: And we know a lot of them.

Janet: Yes, we do! Like in the My Life As… books, some of the things that happen in the book come straight out of our lives as a special needs family.

Jake: You gotta get better at coming up with material that isn’t based on our life.

Janet: Hey! They say to write what you know! Plus, I don’t tell you how to do your job.

Jake: You totally do!

Janet: Sometimes I do. But you always shut me down. Do you think it’s time for us to hang up our spurs as Dusty would say? Move on to something else?

Jake: Or I could write the next book and you could illustrate it.

Janet: Done.

Jake: That would be a bad book.

Janet: A very bad book.

Hannah Sharpe, Cartoon Detective (Hannah Sharpe #1) by Janet Tashjian, illus. by Jake Tashjian. Little, Brown/Ottaviano, $17.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-31980-5