When My Heart Joins The Thousand by A.J. Steiger was a fantastically heartfelt story of loneliness, love, finding your place alone in the world, and autism. It has a meandering pace, a slow unfolding of Alvie’s life as an emancipated 17-year-old just trying to get through life and not make any waves. She’s haunted by her suppressed past and isolated due to her PTSD and low self-worth. She also has autism and the representation of a girl on the spectrum, with accuracy and respect to her portrayal, was so wonderful! I would definitely recommend this if you want to read a super good book that includes autism.
The story basically begins with Alvie going about her daily routine of working at the zoo, getting through tedious visits with her social worker, and just trying to survive. But barely. She’s deeply unhappy but refuses to admit it. What she doesn’t want, though, is to fail in living independently and risk her temporary freedom being revoked and then being sent to a group-home. She just has to make it to 18 or get early emancipation and then she’s free. Often she feels as trapped as the animals she works with at the zoo, particularly her favourite one-winged-hawk, Chance. But then her evening routine is interrupted by seeing a boy with a cane throw his phone and have a breakdown in the park and she tentatively returns it. Midnight e-chat conversations begin. Alvie’s scared her anxiety and autism will ruin this friendship before it starts, but what if she took the risk and made friends with this boy who’s so fragile and breakable?
I’d definitely consider this one upper-YA as it focuses more on teens out-of-home. Alvie is 17 and Stanely is 19 and in college (when he’s not in hospital because of his disability). I also totally cheer for good disability rep in books because it’s very hard to find.
The plot is a quiet one. We spend a lot of time getting lost in Alvie’s mind and world, and it’s a quiet and introspective one while she sorts through her feelings and wants and figures out how to just survive. She’s very closed off, but she’s been through such a massive trauma, and the book unveils her backstory very slowly.
The book also deals with the sadder side of autism, like the ableist views of society and how autistic individuals (especially girls) are often ignored or misdiagnosed and mistreated. There’s heartbreaking lines where Alvie, only a little girl at the time, gets told by her mother that “I know there’s a real you locked in there somewhere”…which is one of the cruelest thing an autistic individual can hear. Alvie constantly feels rejected and the need to hide her autism…until Stanley. And I just loved Alvie’s depiction of life as a girl on the spectrum! It was accurate, respectful, and full of ups and downs. Alvie is woeful at social interaction (she doesn’t really care though) and an absolute master at caring for animals. Her love and passion and feelings, expressed differently to the average person, were beautiful on every page.
Alvie and Stanley’s relationship was amazing too! They start off rushing into it, but then back off and learn about each other too. Stanley is a messy character, all in pieces just like Alvie is. He has depression because of his disability where his bones break so very easily. He’s often in a wheelchair, and if not, he uses a cane. He’s an absolute sweetheart, but also crushed with so much self-loathing due to his past as well. I love how Alvie and Stanley weren’t here to “fix” each other, but rather build each other back up.
The book also majorly references Watership Down…which I confess I don’t know! But it didn’t hinder my enjoyment!
When My Heart Joins the Thousand is one you definitely don’t want to miss. It’s a fantastic glimpse into the life of an autistic girl set against the backdrop of a quiet plot about growing up and learning to care about people. It’s full of emotional roller-coaster moments, with squishy warm parts and tragic icy devastation. I loved this journey with Alvie and Stanley!