Author Spotlight: Jen Malia

April 3, 2020

We are excited to feature author Jen Malia and her picture book TOO STICKY! SENSORY ISSUES WITH AUTISM, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Albert Whitman April 2020). 

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Tell us about your background and how you came to write for children.

I got my bachelor’s degree in English at Bowdoin College.  I also earned two master’s degrees, in English and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and a Ph.D. in English at the University of Southern California. I spent four years as an assistant professor of writing at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. During graduate school and my first job as a professor, I traveled to twenty countries around the world.  I’m currently a tenured associate professor of English at Norfolk State University.  

I’ve been publishing my writing for the past fifteen years. I started out writing peer-reviewed journal articles. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with autism about three years ago that I started writing for a mainstream audience, first essays for newspapers and magazines and most recently books for kids.

Congrats on your debut picture book, TOO STICKY: SENSORY ISSUES WITH AUTISM. Tell us about the story and what inspired you.

TOO STICKY! is the story of an autistic girl who has to overcome her fear of sticky hands to participate in a slime experiment at school.  My main character, Holly, is a composite character based on both my own and my daughter’s experiences living with autism and sensory issues.

I wrote Too Sticky! so that my kids could see themselves in a book.  I even named three of the characters after my kids. TOO STICKY! is not so much a book about autism as a book about a girl who happens to be autistic going about her everyday life. Holly loves science experiments. She goes to school with other kids. She has breakfast with her family.  But she experiences the world differently through an autistic lens.  

You were diagnosed with autism later in life. How did that affect your career and other aspects of your life?

My autism diagnosis in my late 30s was life-changing in a good way. I always knew I was different. Like many others on the autism spectrum, I have difficulty with social situations, repetitive behaviors, inflexible routines, and sensory issues. After my diagnosis, I had a better understanding of how I was different.  Putting a name to it helped me accept my differences and be more kind to myself with my challenges. I’m also able to parent my autistic kids better as an autistic mom because I understand what they are going through.

While I’m still an English professor, the focus of my writing career changed dramatically when I got my autism diagnosis. My big break was writing an essay, “I Was Diagnosed with Autism in My Late 30s,” that was syndicated by five other outlets. I knew then that my mission was to become a self-advocate and advocate for my kids and others on the autism spectrum. One in every 54 American children are now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Going public with my autism story has led to national media attention to not only promote TOO STICKY! but also raise autism awareness and acceptance. For example, I appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason for their “Parenting on the Spectrum” episode.  Parents Magazine did a film shoot with my family for their “Parenting Against All Odds” video series. Two of my essays for the New York Times were published in a special edition magazine called “Understanding Autism.”

Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?

To be completely honest, I never intended to be a children’s book author. Writing personal essays for national magazines and newspapers led to the opportunity to write TOO STICKY!  Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, who ended up being the illustrator, introduced me to editors at Albert Whitman. They read my essay, “What a Muppet with Autism Means to My Family,” for the New York Times about Sesame Street’s autistic Muppet, Julia. They asked me if I could write a children’s picture book with an autistic girl as the main character. TOO STICKY! was published 2 ½ years later.

I was especially excited about the opportunity to raise autism awareness for autistic girls. Only one girl is diagnosed with ASD for every four boys, according to the CDC. Autistic girls are the main characters in my current book projects too.

What projects are you working on?

I currently have two main book projects, a middle-grade novel and a book proposal for a nonfiction parenting book. I’ve also written two other picture book manuscripts that are currently with my agent.  

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Read widely in the age category and genre you wish to publish.  What I mean by “widely” is hundreds of books. I’m always reading something.  I keep a book on my nightstand to read every night before bed.

Focus on your craft before you seek publication. This is easier said than done. Many writers pitch agents and editors or self publish before they are ready. I would recommend joining, or starting, a critique group, ideally a group that has some writers that are more experienced than you. I’m an agented writer and published essayist and picture book author, but I still benefit from having critique partners, especially when writing for new-to-me age categories or genres. I recently started my own middle-grade novel critique group with published and/or agented writers.  

I would also sign up for workshops, webinars, and conferences to continue developing craft. Many organizations, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Inked Voices, and the Highlights Foundation, have opportunities to learn from industry professionals in the comfort of your own home, which is especially important in the time of the coronavirus. I’m currently a member of SCBWI and Inked Voices and have benefited from their workshops. I’ve also signed up for some webinars with the Highlights Foundation.

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

I earned my black belt in Tae kwon do and competed in tournaments for the University of Southern California. I wrote an essay, “My Tae kwon do Black Belt Changed My Life as an Autistic Woman,” for SELF.

Where can people find you online?

My website is  I’m @jenmaliabooks on Twitter and Instagram.  I also have a Facebook author page.  

Jen Malia is the author of Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism (Albert Whitman, April 2020) and Associate Professor of English at Norfolk State University.  She has appeared on NPR's With Good Reason and written essays for the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Catapult, Woman's Day, Glamour, SELF, and others.  She lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and three kids.

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  1. This books sounds as interesting as your path to becoming a children's author. Jen, congratulations on your new book.

  2. Thanks very much for showing us a bit of the reality of looking at life through the lens of autism.

  3. Congratulations on your book! I'll have to read this book to my little niece <3

  4. Congratulations on all of your successes so far.

  5. Congratulations Jen on your book. My son and I enjoyed reading it through Hoopla. I think it's such an important book that children and adults should read. I'm going to send a request for my library to purchase it.

    1. Thank you so much, Ashley! I’m so glad to hear that you and your son enjoyed it!

  6. I love that picture books nowadays handle sensitive topics. I never had this growing up. Bravo!


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