Book Review: Colin Fischer, by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Colin Fischer is starting his freshman year in high school, trying to adapt to a new environment and the shifting social and political allegiances of the high school landscape. Along the way, he’s also managing his disability; Colin has Asperger’s, which affects the way he interacts with the world around him. In Colin Fischer, Miller and Stentz present a mystery within a mystery, illustrating how Colin’s methodological processing of the world serves him in good stead when a gun shows up on campus and no one knows where it came from, but everyone suspects the neighbourhood bully.

The result is an exploration and juxtaposition of disability and normality, as well as another entry in the growing series of texts exploring bullying. Rather than being a simplistic cartoon villain, as bullies of old were depicted, Wayne is a more complex character with his own issues, and secrets, like a miserable home life. He’s a much more accurate reflection of a high school bully, and his character is an honest examination of how and why people become bullies. Colin, of course, starts out as his victim, but that’s not how the tale ends.

What turned me on to this book, other than my most trusted bookseller recommending it to me and the fact that one of the authors hails from this neck of the woods, was the fact that it includes a disabled character. Disabled characters are rather rare, and rarer still are texts in which they’re depicted well. Usually, I end up throwing books featuring disabled people against the wall in fury, often within the first 25 pages. Many writers don’t bother to do their research, have no actual experience with disability, and use their own stereotypes and attitudes about disability as a framework for their characters, assuming this characterisation must be accurate. More chillingly, some writers clearly don’t care whether their disabled characters are accurate, let alone think about the impact pop culture has on social attitudes about disability.

Textually, Colin’s disability is a feature, not a bug, but Miller and Stenz did a great job of veering away from supercrip territory with the book. Yes, Colin has developed skills and methods for dealing with the world that turn out to be really useful for investigating crimes, but he’s not some kind of Aspergian super-detective because of it. He still experiences sensory overloads, he has meltdowns, and at one point, he gets into serious danger by having an overload at precisely the wrong time. He is, in other words, a disabled character who manages to be complex and interesting, whose impairment is a part of him but not the only thing about him; while his disability is key to both who he is and the plot, it’s actually handled with nuance and it’s richly fleshed-out, rather than being an endless parade of stereotypes.

Each chapter leads with entries from Colin’s Notebook, which include all sorts of little interesting facts and tidbits (as do the footnotes, and we all know I am a sucker for a good footnote—I love seeing them used in fiction in particular, breaking down boundaries when it comes to ‘acceptable’ use). The actual story is written in the third person limited, allowing us to see the world from Colin’s perspective, and thus it touches on Colin’s daily life, including all his rituals, habits, and needs, without being overbearing or stagy. Colin is a very matter-of-fact character, and so is this book.

Like Marcelo in the Real World, another book featuring a character on the autism spectrum, the relationships in the text are as important as the character himself. Neither Colin nor Marcelo is presented as a freak, as something to be gawked at and marveled over, but both characters are also different, distinct from the people around them. They sometimes struggle with the emotions demonstrated by the other characters, and with relating to people who don’t communicate clearly. Rather than focusing on the people around the disabled character, the authors make a conscious choice to flip the lens and make Colin and Marcelo central to these scenes, and that is a refreshing change.

As a reader on the spectrum, I could see pieces of myself in the text, which selfishly is what I look for in books with characters who share my disabilities. Not because I think my experience is universal, but because I crave some confirmation that my experience is not unique, and that there are other people out there like me in the world; in YA fiction in particular this is especially valuable, because disability can be very isolating, and for those who are struggling with their disabilities or navigating in an environment like a school, which may not be terribly friendly, it can be extremely important to have an affirmation that you are not alone, and that other people share and have shared your experiences.

Colin approaches the world around him as a mystery, using logic and deductive skills to make it orderly and comprehensible when he doesn’t understand what other people are doing and why. That’s familiar to a lot of us who struggle with a world that often doesn’t make sense because other humans are very, very strange. That trait turns out to be useful when an actual mystery unfolds, but that’s only part of the story of Colin Fischer; it’s also about making connections with people as well as the changes people undergo as they enter high school and start to mature into independence.

These changes happen to all of us regardless of disability status, but Colin navigates them through an extra layer of complexity. That’s well-captured in Colin Fischer, and the stage was also very clearly set for a possible series, because there are more directions to take the characters and a number of enticing dangling threads to follow up on in future books.