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Friday, November 23, 2012

Teen Detective ‘Colin Fischer’ Explores The Autistic Mind

Imagine being an alien anthropologist stranded on Earth.

Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz are the authors of Colin Fischer. (Doug Hac)

That’s how the title character Colin Fischer is described in the introduction for the book, written by author Lev Grossman.

Colin is a high school freshman with Asperger’s syndrome, which means he has difficulty picking up social cues.

So he approaches life as a detective, jotting down notes and observing everything, to figure out whether people are happy or sad, and how he’s expected to respond to them.

All those observational skills come in handy when there’s a crime at the school. And now people who had scorned Colin find themselves relying on him for help.

Television and movie screenwriting partners Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz came up with the idea.

And Stentz draws some of his inspiration from real life. Both he and two of his children are on the autism spectrum.

“There are elements of autobiography in there,” Stentz said. “But Colin is just as much a product of both of our imaginations.”

“What we are out to do, at the end of the day, is to tell a gripping story about an interesting character”
– Zack Stentz

The authors say the primary way that Asperger’s presents itself in Colin is his burning desire for facts.

“The most important thing is that Colin is somebody who loves facts,” Miller said. “He loves talking about them and loves teaching you about them.”

But he also misses social cues, and relies on flash cards with facial expressions on them to understand how people are feeling.

“The one thing that eludes him is why do people do what they do. And the only way to solve that mystery is to understand what people are presenting to you when they talk to you, when they communicate with you,” Stentz said.

The book could help people better understand people on the autism spectrum.

Miller said, “If somebody reads this book and they come away thinking, ‘I recognize this kid, he’s in my class, or he’s in my house,’ (“Or he’s in my mirror,” Stentz chimes in) then that’s great.”

But ultimately this book is about storytelling, Stentz said.

“What we are out to do, at the end of the day, is to tell a gripping story about an interesting character,” Stentz said.

Book Excerpt: Colin Fischer

By: Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Chapter One: Shark Behavior

In the open ocean, fish often swim together in schools. This is typically a strategy to find food or evade predators. But in the waters off the Galápagos Islands there is a school of fish like no other in the world….

Thousands of hammerhead sharks congregate and swim in intricate patterns, the only species of shark to exhibit schooling behavior. Scientists still don’t know why.

Have they come here to feed and take refuge in a hostile ocean? Are they selecting potential mates? Or are they engaging in mysterious social behaviors that an outside observer could never understand?

My name is Colin Fischer. I’m fourteen years old and weigh 121 lbs. Today is my first day of high school.

I have 1,365 days left until I’m finished.

Colin clutched his precious, dog-eared Notebook to his chest. The Notebook had seen better days, though it had been fastidiously cared for. Its red cover was faded, the metal spiral down its side showed the wear of a slow but inevitable unraveling, and the holes in the cardboard were worn down from constant opening and closing.

The Notebook, in Colin’s way—unspoken, but demonstrated—was loved.

He pushed his way through the sea of humanity around him, sometimes bobbing, sometimes swimming, eyes downcast to avoid the gaze and attention of any predator that might hunt the hallway. Collisions with other students occurred, though infrequently, in spite of Colin’s best efforts. “Excuse me,” he would say without looking as someone brushed his arm. “Please don’t touch me,” as elbow met elbow. “I’m sorry.”

Colin’s eyes flicked upward, having counted every step before this last one, knowing there were precisely twenty-seven between his locker and the Boys’ Room. The heavy wooden door dwarfed him, and for a moment Colin fixed on the blue triangular sign just next to it. Colin didn’t like the color blue. It made him feel cold.

Still, he pushed against the door, taking care to protect the Notebook from coming into contact with any part of it—especially the blue triangular sign.

The Boys’ Room was dimly lit and dirty. Colin carefully set his Notebook on a narrow black shelf and stood at the white porcelain sink. He noted with a wince that the sink itself was not very clean or wellcared-for, and after a moment’s hesitation turned on the faucet (one turn–beat–two turns–beat–three turns, now wash). Two drops of soap from the dispenser—blue, which Colin didn’t like, but there was nothing to be done about it.

It was only after rinsing his hands, when his bespectacled eyes met his own in the decaying mirror, that Colin realized he was not alone. Wayne Connelly stood behind him.

Wayne was a beast, Colin’s opposite in every way. He was broad, thick, giving the impression that he might have been carved out of solid rock rather than born from flesh-and-blood woman. Colin turned toward him, and Wayne smiled.

Colin scrutinized the smile. Analyzed it. What did it mean? He pictured a series of flash cards, each with a different sort of smile drawn on it, each carefully hand-labeled for proper identification:

FRIENDLY. NERVOUS. HAPPY. SURPRISED. SHY.

CRUEL.

“Hello, Wayne,” Colin said, as if he were reading from a script. “How are you today?”

Wayne’s smile widened as he grabbed Colin, quick for someone of his size. His indelicate fingers twisted the material of Colin’s striped polo shirt, then hoisted him into the air and carried him toward a bathroom stall.

“My shirt,” Colin observed. “You’ll ruin it.”

“Bill me, Fischer,” Wayne answered. He kicked the stall door closed with a loud clack that made Colin shudder. “After you say hello to the sharks.”

CRUEL, Colin decided as his head went into the toilet, thrashing but helpless. The smile was definitely CRUEL.

Excerpted from the book COLIN FISCHER by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz. Copyright © 2012 by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz. Reprinted with permission of Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group.

Guests:

  • Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, co-authors of “Colin Fischer.”

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