Written and illustrated by Keiko Tobe
Keiko Tobe’s With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child is unusual among the manga available in English. It’s fictional, but based on real events and individuals and, while it tells a story, its purpose is more to educate than to entertain. Yen Press’s presentation underlines this: the covers are so unlike standard manga covers that when I first saw With the Light volume 1 in a bookshop, my immediate reaction was “What is this doing in the comics section?” I assumed it was prose non-fiction, because it looked like prose non-fiction, and I didn’t realise it was manga until I actually started flipping through it. Once I took it home and read it, I realised I wasn’t that far off the mark: the characters are fictionalised amalgams of real people, and some of the events are based on things that really happened; what’s more, there’s a prose section at the end with testimonies from the parents of autistic children, and notes throughout giving advice and extra information to readers. With the Light may be a fictional story, but it’s clearly meant to be more than that: Keiko Tobe’s most important goal is to teach people about autism.
In that, she succeeds admirably. I’m no expert, but I know a little something about autistic spectrum disorders; enough to see that Tobe’s done her research and hasn’t fallen for any of the distressing and dangerous fads that surround autism. Certain basic facts are repeated constantly, as the main character Sachiko needs to educate her friends, her family and her neighbours: autism is a mental disorder, it affects Hikaru’s ability to communicate and understand, loud sounds are painful to him… But the advantage of a story is that it can teach you more than facts. Through reading about Sachiko and Hikaru’s experiences, we learn what it’s like to be the mother of an autistic child: frustrating, painful, difficult; but also rewarding.
Volume 1 of With the Light (reviewed here on the blog) covered Hikaru’s birth, diagnosis, and early elementary school years. As volume 2 begins, Hikaru is just starting the fourth grade. His parents have found a wonderful support network of helpful teachers and friends, and they’ve devised tricks and techniques to get them through all the daily problems that Hikaru faces due to his disability. But the people who support them have lives of their own, and Sachiko soon finds that she can’t depend on them always being around. What’s more, not everyone is sympathetic. Some of the people she and Hikaru encounter don’t know anything about autism, and some don’t want to know; Sachiko has to cope with a parade of people assuming that she’s a bad, neglectful mother because Hikaru doesn’t know how to behave.
With the Light doesn’t have a strong narrative thread: it’s more like a diary of Sachiko’s life than a novel. This just adds to the work’s authentic feel, and it doesn’t detract from its emotional core. As you read With the Light, you get to know Sachiko and Hikaru, and to love them, and to want them to succeed: whether at walking to school or at learning how to buy things in a shop, everything is more difficult, which makes the victories all the sweeter. With the Light continues to be a deeply moving and very realistic depiction of life with autism; highly recommended for anyone with a heart.