Monday, 18 February 2013

Review: Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Colin Fischer cannot stand to be touched. He does not like the colour 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 frosting on his hands, and there was white chocolate frosting found on the grip of the smoking gun...

I count myself to be incredibly fortunate to work in a mixed comprehensive school which has a fantastic resource unit. For those of you who are not 'in the know', this means that disabled students are able to experience a mainstream education alongside students without disabilities. One of our ex-students, of whom we are incredibly proud, is a multi-Paralympic gold medal winner. As well as students with physical disabilities we also teach students who are autistic and/or have Asperger Syndrome, and whilst it can occasionally be challenging it is also very rewarding to see these students grow up through the school and leave us with GCSEs and A-Levels before they move on into higher education or jobs. I tell you this because the eponymous main character of Colin Fischer by Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz reminds me so much of some of the young people I have had the pleasure of teaching during my career.

Colin has Asperger Syndrome. He hates to be touched, he avoids eye contact with people wherever possible, and he really, really hates loud noises. In fact, he finds it so difficult to cope with loud noises that he starts to bark like a dog. Like many people with Asperger's he also finds it very difficult to 'read' other people, and as such he carries around with him a series of flash cards, each with a small pictogram of a different facial expression drawn on it, which he uses to gauge the emotions shown by his peers and the other people he comes into contact with. 

However, Colin also has some very special talents: he is a genius at maths and he notices things and can make connections. Just like his hero, Sherlock Holmes. Thus, when a gun goes off in the school canteen, and the school bully (who also happens to be a long time tormentor of Colin) is wrongly accused, Colin feels compelled to solve the mystery of who fired the gun, even if it means lying to his parents for the first time in his life, and potentially putting himself into a grave danger.

Colin Fischer is being billed by Puffin as this year's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and whilst there are some similarities, particularly in the medical condition experienced by the main character, this book is not as deep, and is much, much funnier. In fact, this book is laugh out loud funny in many places, and I loved it. In particular, Colin's approach to physical education, and the scenes on the basketball court with the school's coach are to die for. In fact, said coach reminds me of a number of staff I have the pleasure of working with in the way that he approaches Colin and his special needs and abilities.

As the story progresses we are treated to excerpts from Colin's notebook. Colin has a compulsion to write down a lot of what he observes in his day-to-day life, and the conclusions he draws from the behaviour of others. And when put in Colin's very logical and matter-of-fact way, his peers often seem far more strange than he is. After all, what is the definition of normal, and can anyone really be described as such?

For me, as well as the humour, the other stand out element of Colin Fischer is the characters. Colin's long-suffering but very loving parents just don't know how to react when his investigations lead to what most parents would call poor behaviour  Should they be angry, or relieved that he is acting like a 'normal' teenager? His younger brother seems to take delight out of teasing Colin, but also suffers from jealousy as a result of the attention Colin gets from their parents.Wayne Connelly, the aforementioned bully, really does not know what to think when Colin declares his wish to help prove his innocence. This story is really more about Colin and the other characters than it is about the mystery plot itself.

This book would make a superb class reader for young teens, although there are elements of its US High School setting that may need further explaining to students in other countries. However, dealing with issues of bullying, gun culture, disability, etc. it could generate a great deal of class discussion. The book's plot comes to a natural conclusion, but also leaves things open for a sequel. I really hope we get that next instalment, as Colin is one of my favourite book characters of the past few months and I would love to read more stories featuring him.

Colin Fischer was published in paperback in the UK at the beginning of February. My thanks go to the lovely people at Puffin for sending me a copy to review.


  1. This sounds like a really good read. I used to work with children with language and social communication difficulties so am always interested by books that feature characters like Colin.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation; this sounds really interesting! I studied The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for my university dissertation, and a funnier version of the book sounds really appealing.

  3. I read this book recently and it was amazing! I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, wondering what was going to happen next. And I am a girl! Pretty dern good.