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Washington dad pens fantasy adventure about teen with autism

Posted April 16

— Power chords have never been more powerful than when they're blasting out of Joel Suzuki's guitar in waves of glowing color.

Joel is a typical teenager in many ways. He feels awkward around girls. He loves rocking out on his electric axe and dreams of making it big, but suspects that might not be realistic. Really, he's more of a "private virtuoso" who's most comfortable playing alone.

But Joel is also supremely gifted. He's great at memorizing data and tracking details. He's "on the spectrum" — living with a mild form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. That's not usually considered a gift — it makes him a magnet for bullies — but through a series of amazing adventures, Joel learns to cast magic spells by combining his unique brain waves with his awesome guitar chops.

All of that is established in "Secret of the Songshell," book one of the Joel Suzuki saga, a growing series of fantasy adventures for teen readers by devoted Vancouver, Washington, dad Brian Tashima. Protagonist Suzuki is a mashup of Tashima, who's a working musician as well as a writer, and his 18-year-old son Torin, who lives with Asperger's.

Reviews of the first two Suzuki books have been positive and even grateful: "Brian Tashima has succeeded in creating a great fictional 'aspie' hero, and I would recommend this book to people both on and off the autism spectrum," Gavin Bollard wrote on a blog called Life With Asperger's. "It's quite a good story."

The Suzuki books join a growing chorus urging understanding and acceptance of autism and Asperger's. Tashima pointed out that a new Muppet with autism recently joined the cast of "Sesame Street," and that Billy the blue ranger in the latest "Power Rangers" film is also on the spectrum.

Tashima donates one dollar from each book sale to Autism Empowerment, a grass-roots nonprofit agency. Tashima is on the board of directors.

"My commitment is to give back to the community that supports and enjoys the book," he said.

Portraying Asperger's as a talent, not a disability, helps pave the way to better lives for people with autism, he said. "I would love to make Joel the autism community's own Harry Potter," he said.

SOURCE OF MAGIC

Tashima grew up in Hawaii and came to Vancouver for family reasons. Plus, Hawaii's not the best spot for aspiring rock bands, he said; the Portland area is better.

He always loved to read and tried to write, he said, but his own creative projects never fascinated him. Until his son, who was deep into Harry Potter and Percy Jackson adventures, surprised him with a request: "Dad, can you write me into a book?"

"It was the right kind of inspiration I needed to see it all the way through," Tashima said. He knew his story would be fantastical, focus on music and shine a light on Asperger's as "the source of magic," not an obstacle or problem.

He's always seen his son that way, he said. Torin was teaching himself — and his dad — about computers at age 2. Since then, he's built his own. He can memorize staggering amounts of detail — strings of numbers, shopping mall layouts.

"That always seemed like superpowers to me," Tashima said.

Tashima worked with writing groups and editors on his book but couldn't get a publisher interested. So he went the self-publishing route. The first Joel Suzuki book, "Secret of the Songshell," was a fantasy finalist for the self-publishing USA Best Books Awards in 2012.

Since then, Tashima has finished two more Joel Suzuki books — and made plans for many more. His architecture for the whole series used to be seven books, each one based on a color in the visible light spectrum, which plays an important role in the saga; but lately he's realized that he'll need 11 installments in all.

No problem. Tashima did some research and discovered that there are plenty of invisible wavelengths too. It all lines up neatly.

FEELING BETTER

While he may not have climbed onto the best-seller list, Tashima has gotten noticed by the autism community. He gives readings and visits classrooms, either in person or via Skype, to talk about his writing and his parenting, he said.

He finds nothing more satisfying than connecting with young readers who tell him that Joel Suzuki's adventures and abilities "make me feel so much better about myself," he said.

The only thing that's comparable is when readers who aren't on the spectrum also enjoy the books, and tell Tashima: "Now I understand so much better."

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