The title character of Colin Fischer, a new young adult novel by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, is a boy detective, but don’t confuse him for Encyclopedia Brown. Colin is a high schooler with Asperger’s syndrome; he has trouble identifying facial expressions, doesn’t like to be touched, and needs things to be organized. He also has a great admiration for Sherlock Holmes, so when a gun goes off in the school cafeteria, he’s keen on investigating the matter rather than running away.
It’s Colin’s first year of high school, and his first year without his “shadow” Marie, who helped him navigate daily life. So now he’s on his own, dealing with the new social dynamics of high school, trying to interpret the smile on the face of a bully. The story is told from the third person, but Miller and Stentz help the reader see things from Colin’s point of view. Each chapter has a short section taken from Colin’s ever-present notebook, where he records his observations of the world around him. But even when it’s not in Colin’s voice, the authors often explain his thought process, allowing the readers to get inside his head. It’s really eye-opening, letting you understand why some things could be completely overwhelming.
When the gun is fired in the cafeteria, things are in chaos — students scatter and the gun is left on the ground. The school already has its prime suspect: Wayne Connelly, the school bully. But Colin doesn’t buy it, and sets out to prove the innocence of a kid who shoved Colin’s head into a toilet the first day of school.
The book reminds me a little of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from nearly a decade ago, which also featured a young autistic boy trying to solve a mystery. In Haddon’s book, Christopher is the narrator himself, and the gimmick of the book is that you have this emotionless child talking about emotional situations that are beyond his grasp — but should be obvious to the reader. In the end, the story of what actually happened wasn’t so surprising; it was only its telling that was new.
Colin Fischer, on the other hand, presents a different situation: the adults have already decided who the culprit is, and in their minds there isn’t really a mystery. When Colin tries to argue otherwise, he is rebuffed and told to stay out of it. You might be able to figure out pieces of the mystery from the observations that Colin makes, but the ending was still somewhat unexpected — and also left some loose ends (to be tied up in future books, perhaps?).
As a GeekDad, I found the interactions between Colin and his family particularly moving. His parents, who work for JPL, have their own ways of communicating with Colin, balancing their instinct to reach out with his aversion to physical contact. His little brother Danny has his own way of lashing out at Colin, because he’s at the age where he recognizes Colin’s differences but doesn’t have enough empathy to relate to him. Instead, he resents what he sees as Colin’s preferential treatment. These are difficulties that real parents of autistic children have to navigate, and I think the book does a good job of presenting both Colin’s point of view and the family’s.
The book works well as a young adult novel: a fascinating protagonist with a large supporting cast, a mystery to be solved, the joys and pains of high school relationships. But the book also has important messages about Asperger’s syndrome — sometimes taught subtly, sometimes explicitly. The gym teacher, Mr. Turrentine, doesn’t seem to treat Colin differently than the other students, ignoring the note from Colin’s parents to exempt him from PE class. But even though he avoids giving Colin special treatment, you can sense that he understands Colin more than he lets on. Colin’s notes include a bit of history about Dr. Hans Asperger, who emphasized the abilities and talents of his patients, and the story itself is an example of it. The New York Times Magazine just published an article titled “The Autism Advantage” in a similar vein: it’s possible to focus on the skills of those with autism rather than their disabilities.
My hope is that teens will discover Colin Fischer and read it because of the plot, but that the message about Asperger’s syndrome and autism will stay with them. One potential danger (also pointed out in “The Autism Advantage”) is that some people may come to see all autistic people as hyper-intelligent, rather than allowing for the possibility of a wide range of skill levels and abilities. We shouldn’t simply replace the mistaken idea of all autistic people as unintelligent with another misunderstanding. Colin Fischer won’t provide a perfect understanding, of course, but it may inspire them to read more about the subject and to see others with autism in a new light. I don’t know if Miller and Stentz are planning to write more about Colin Fischer (the ending is open-ended), but I would be thrilled to see where he goes next.
One more note: the audio book is narrated by Jesse Eisenberg — based on his performance in The Social Network, I think he would do a terrific job.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book.