Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

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

Colin Fischer is ‘swirlied’ by the school bully on the morning of his first day of high school. Most kids his age would respond either by reporting the incident to the school authorities or by plotting an elaborate revenge (at least in the world of fiction.) Colin responds by returning home to dry off and change his clothes. Because that is what makes sense to him. We (the readers) very quickly learn that Colin is not a ‘normal’ teenager – he has Asperger syndrome. Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. And what makes sense to Colin is often unexpected or indecipherable to the outside world. Luckily, we have a glimpse inside Colin’s world through the 3rdperson omniscient narrator and through Colin’s notebook – a window into his thought processes.

In quick order we are introduced to the key players in this story – Colin’s family, classmates, teachers, and school administration.  When an altercation occurs in the school cafeteria, a mysterious gun appears and goes off, miraculously harming no one. Colin’s bully, Wayne, is accused of bringing the gun on campus and Colin is determined to clear his name! (Not because he cares about Wayne’s innocence, per se, but because he knows the school has gotten it wrong.)

At first I was a bit bothered by how intelligent Colin is, until we find out what Colin’s parents do for a living, then it seemed well within the realm of possibility. In fact, the characterization of Colin’s parents makes the entire story believable (well, almost all of it.) Why am I a good judge of how reasonable this is? I’m going to let you in on my secret, while the Autism Society’s statistics state that one out of every 100 children between the ages of 3 and 17 living in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, the number of high functioning autistic students (and/or those identified with Asperger syndrome) at my school is considerably higher. My school does not have a separate setting classroom for autistic students, so I have very little experience with those students whose disability precludes them from being mainstreamed with the general school population. However, due to a confluence of factors, my school has an unusually high number of students ‘on the spectrum’ who are high functioning and come from families similar to Colin’s. In fact, most years my school’s population of these students is between 5 and 8 percent.

What worked for me in this book:

Colin’s family – especially the characterization of his little brother. I think it’s important for youth who have a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder to see that they can be normal. Sometimes being ‘normal’ includes being extremely frustrated and lashing out, just like any other sibling might. His parents are portrayed as active and concerned without being perfect. They’ve sought out as much information as possible to help them raise a child with Colin’s particular needs, but they are still feeling their way through how to parent him (as all parents do.)

Colin – as a main character it can be difficult to establish empathy for an autistic individual – they are so different and seemingly ‘other’ to so many people. I ended up feeling as if Colin were one of my own students. In fact, he reminds me of several of my favorite students from past years.

The pace and plotting – almost everything was tight and well explained. It is a consummate example of ‘show, don’t tell.’

What didn’t work for me in this book:

Colin’s school administration. Maybe things are different in California, but I have never in my 18 years as an educator run into a principal who would have responded the way Colin’s does to almost any of the situations presented in the book. But that’s just me. I don’t think it detracts from the overall reading of the book (especially as its intended audience will doubtlessly not notice.)

The footnotes, and, to a certain extent, Colin’s notebook entries. From the beginning I was frustrated by the footnotes. I felt that most of the information in them was either unnecessary or could have easily been incorporated into the text. I quickly realized that they were effectively pulling me out of the narrative and stopped reading them. I enjoyed the book much more after that. I felt similarly about some of Colin’s notebook entries (mostly towards the end of the book.) Overall, though, I thought they contributed to an understanding of Colin’s character.

Why I think this book is an important purchase:

Empathy. Empathy, empathy, empathy. I cannot say enough how important it is for students to be exposed in a positive way to a diverse population of characters in the books they read. This is a quick and engaging read that explains what it is like to live as a person with Asperger syndrome without casting it in a ‘pitiable’ light. Today’s students are tomorrows coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors. The more we can do to establish empathy for everyone within them now, the better off we will be as a society. For more thoughts on this, here is an excellent recent blog by the author Shannon Hale.

Colin Fischer was published November 1, 2012 by Razorbill. ISBN 978-1595145789.

Approximately 1 in every 88 children born today will be diagnosed with autism or designated as being somewhere on the spectrum. For more information, please check out the Autism Society web site. http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/facts-and-statistics.html