Author: Edward Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz
Genre: YA, contemporary, tough stuff, mystery
Publication Date: November 1, 2012 (Razorbill/Penguin – North America)
Source: Traded-for ARC
Summary: SOLVING CRIME, ONE FACIAL EXPRESSION AT A TIME
Colin Fischer cannot stand to be touched. He does not like the color blue. He needs index cards to recognize facial expressions.
But when a gun is found in the school cafeteria, interrupting a female classmate’s birthday celebration, Colin is the only for the investigation. It’s up to him to prove that Wayne Connelly, the school bully and Colin’s frequent tormenter, didn’t bring the gun to school. After all, Wayne didn’t have didn’t have frosting on his hands, and there was white chocolate frosting found on the grip of the smoking gun…
Colin Fischer is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and his story–as told by the screenwriters of X-Men: First Class and Thor–is perfect for readers who have graduated from Encyclopedia Brown and who are ready to consider the greatest mystery of all: what other people are thinking and feeling.
☆: 4/5 stars – a fun mystery and a refreshing look at autism within YA lit!
Review: To say I’m a fan of Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz’s work for television and film would be an understatement. Some of my most adored series and movies (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”, “Fringe”, “Thor”, “X-Men: First Class”) have been at least partially written by them in some capacity or another. So when I found out about this book – about an Aspie boy no less – I was definitely intrigued. The difference in screenwriting and novel writing are bigger than most would think – in screenwriting, you get visual stage directions, letting the camera do all of the work for you. In a novel, you have to write every single part of that sensory input out because you don’t have a camera doing that work for you. I have friends that are screenwriters, and some of their biggest issues that I’ve found while reading their manuscripts have been with sensory language and input because of them being so used to relying on stage directions/the camera to do some of the most important work for them in a novel. Which I should say, isn’t a bad thing, just a common issue. So I was a little anxious to see how Miller and Stentz would do on a non-visual medium with their impressive writing skills.
I wasn’t disappointed. Not in the least. If anything, I was really surprised at how well the two did. And that’s always a happy thing. “Colin Fischer” has been pitched as a “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” for the YA set – and I have to say, while that’s accurate, I found this book to be happily more equally balanced between Fischer’s issues continuing to adjust to being mainstreamed (I’ll go into that later) and to finding out more about the mystery presented before him with the gun and the cake. Miller and Stentz did a fantastic job from this Aspie girl’s POV, so it’s definitely one contemporary YA book I’m proud to have in my library.
Now, fair disclosure: I was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s when I was 14, and my mother mainstreamed me from kindergarten onward – and I’ve had it all my life. There are so many things that authors don’t talk about, or forget to talk about, or are afraid to talk about – like the huge difference between male and female Aspies (what their tendencies are in their “specialized areas” and so forth), what else comes packaged with the otherwise standard autism issues (sensory input problems, gender identity problems, things in that vein), and other stuff like that. It’s all very sensitive because of the current culture where Asperger’s will soon be sublimated and packaged within the wider range of Autism Spectrum Disorders when the new DSM-V comes out for neurological and mental conditions/diseases/etc sometime next year, and where we as a culture feel that we have to handle everyone with kid gloves because they have different issues. I’m definitely no fan of Autism Speaks precisely because of the kid-glove issue – they seem to want more of it. I can honestly speak from experience that being mainstreamed was the best choice my mother made for me for my education. It forced me to learn how to deal with my neurotypical friends and colleagues of the same age, and while it was NOT easy in the least (and not always fun), I still believe that had I been sent to a special needs school or corralled into the LAUSD special ed program, I wouldn’t have been able to do as much as I have.
With all of that said, while I did have problems with facial recognition as a child (and that was solved with a lot of trial and error with only a bit of help of the facial expression cards with a therapist), I definitely can say that I don’t think I had quite as hard a time of it as Colin Fischer did. Miller and Stentz get major props from me for having a character that’s struggling so very hard, but not only knows he is functional – but takes pride in it, whether this character is actively aware of it or not. Also, they get brownie points for having Fischer mainstreamed. They have created a very lovable and sympathetic MC in Fischer, making you want to root for him not because you pity him, but because you can see that he’s proud of what he’s achieved so far even with everything standing in his way.
And so I say to the YA contemp authors of the world: we need more heroes/heroines like this when we’re talking about autism, especially the higher-functioning on the ASD range. The best part about Fischer as a character is that it seems that he only has a bit of awareness over how huge some of his triumphs are, and that’s always the best part. I’ve had to had triumphs of my own like that pointed out to me repeatedly and I’m in my late 20s. I still don’t get it. But this book gave me the serious warm fuzzies, especially when we see how much Fischer is growing despite everything.
Some reviewers have hit on the “savant syndrome” thing that seems to come out when Fischer is forced to participate in basketball and aces it when his coach is awesome and uses a great technique into coaxing him into interacting with his peers through basketball. If Fischer is awesome in math, why not use that? And why not punch it up some to give him something he’s finally really good at? That’s what novels are for – to exaggerate things in order to bring out the maximum emotional payoff. Yes, even in contemporary/realistic fiction. What really helped augment the argument that yeah, suddenly he’s great at basketball but not all is solved is the matter of the pick-up game and him being touched and subsequently freaking out. That I definitely felt (no pun intended) pretty deeply, mostly because I myself am pretty sensitive to who touches me and how. Unfortunately, touch and sensory input sensitivity is not something mainstreaming can get rid of in an Aspie or ASD kid, and sometimes can even make it worse. But under repeated stimuli, sometimes, you just might be able to get it bearable enough for the kid to go about a regular, neurotypical daily life. Think about it – how many people do you touch without thinking about how they might react, simply because it’s normal in interaction? Now put yourself in Fischer’s place. It’s a whole lot of touching you have to dodge, and mostly because we don’t think about it. And while I admit that mainstreaming did worsen the touch/sensory problem on occasion, it for the most part got me able to function as a neurotypical person would (more or less) during my daily activities, able to anticipate and thus brace myself for any incoming touch or sensory contact that I would have to get through in order to continue my day.
Now, to the notebook and the mystery. I loved both of these. The notebook was definitely Fischer’s trademark obsession (along with mysteries), so it was a wonderful way to show how he also felt as an observer of life rather than a participant. I definitely felt Fischer’s frustration with being waved off by teachers, the school administration, and even the police – not because I go around solving mysteries, myself, but that’s just because it happens so frequently with ASD/Aspie kids. Asperger’s isn’t called the “little professor” syndrome for nothing, guys – I frequently made trips to the principal’s office as a child and later, in middle school and high school for frustrating or outwitting my teachers by either my constant stubbornness to give up certain routines or by doing things I didn’t think would upset others or just because I refused to put my hand down when the class was asked a question and I was told that I kept intimidating my classmates because I knew (or thought I knew, depending on the subject) what the answer was. I think that the frustration was played really well by Miller and Stentz, and sets up everyone who has underestimated or brushed off Fischer by the end of the book to really not only impress them but make us take another look at Fischer – not as someone who’s handicapped, but someone who may be more capable at certain things than anyone else. And that gave me even more warm fuzzies.
My biggest complaint? The book was too short. I wanted more. And while I can honestly say while this standalone had an ending that left me satisfied in that the story can end here and I can let it go, I still wouldn’t mind a mystery series starring Fischer as the crime solver. In fact, I’d LOVE that. Not only would it be fun to read, but I think it would help the YA set get a little more informed about their autistic peers, and maybe help change their world view. Not everyone can be mainstreamed, but they can still learn to function if given the right tools, which is why special ed, unless the child really can’t handle a neurotypical environment, isn’t the end-all Aspie/ASD solution.
Final verdict? If you want a thoughtful, truthful, and fun book about an Aspie/autistic hero that’s also contemporary/realistic, “Colin Fischer” is definitely your book. Definitely one of my favorites released this year, I can only hope there’s more on the way. “Colin Fischer” is out now from Razorbill/Penguin in North America, so be sure to check it out. It’s seriously awesome, definitely one of my picks for 2012, and has this Aspie girl’s stamp of approval.