(First published Sep 15, 2013)
Today’s Book: “A Wizard Alone: New Millennium Edition” by Diane Duane.
The Plot: In a contemporary YA fantasy setting, a budding wizard named Darryl has gotten stuck in his Ordeal – a wizards’ initiation. Teenage wizards Nita and Kit are sent to figure out what’s gone wrong.
Autistic Character(s): …Wait, what’s that you say? Does today’s Autistic Book Party look familiar?
It’s true. I’ve reviewed “A Wizard Alone” before, and I didn’t like it very much. But there was one thing I didn’t know when I wrote that review! Diane Duane had already faced criticism from autistic readers about the way she wrote Darryl. And instead of ignoring them or digging in her heels, she had already gotten started on fixing the book.
When the New Millennium Edition came out, Duane was kind enough to send me a free ecopy. I admired her good intentions and willingness to engage, but at first I was pretty skeptical about whether she could have actually fixed all the problems. Going through the book itself, I was quickly proven wrong.
Let’s go through the problems from the old edition, one at a time.
1. In the old edition, as part of the happy ending, Nita and Kit magically cure Darryl’s autism.
In the new edition, Darryl is not cured. The idea of a cure does come up, briefly, near the end; after thinking about it for a minute, Darryl decides to stay autistic. His reasoning is complicated, but interesting, and meshes well with the philosophy of the Young Wizards universe.
I should clarify something here, for anyone who has read my post on cure decision stories. I don’t like stories about autistic people deciding whether or not to be cured, even if they end up deciding not to. But the New Millennium Edition of “A Wizard Alone” is not a cure decision story. The cure decision is unrelated to the story’s major conflict; it comes up in one scene and is dealt with in that scene, and then the characters move on. At that point in the story, the characters are already messing with a kind of magic that can change or rewrite people’s minds. So, as much as I wish it were otherwise, the issue of a cure needs to be addressed there. Because readers are going to think of it even if the characters don’t. Bringing it up briefly, and explaining why the characters don’t do it, was the right decision.
2. The old edition contains lots of incorrect information about autism.
The new edition fixes this. In fact, it pours in a lot of new, correct information. (When one chapter mentioned Kit educating himself by going online to read blogs written by autistic people and their families, I cheered!) At a couple of points, especially near the beginning, this verges on preachiness for me. But for young adult readers who aren’t already familiar with autistic self-advocacy, it’s probably just right.
(A couple of commenters complained last time about a part of the book where Darryl’s mental world is depicted as a desert. In the new edition, the desert and other similar structures are explicitly described as works of art that he created for a specific purpose.)
3. Darryl from the old edition is portrayed in ways that make no sense. For example, he switches back and forth rapidly between very competent theory of mind and a complete ignorance of the fact that other people exist.
In the new edition, this problem doesn’t exist. There are still two different ways in which characters can see Darryl, one of which appears much more competent than the other. This happens for several interesting reasons, including Darryl deliberately changing the way he acts in certain contexts. But it’s no longer a wildly silly, inconsistent method of characterization.
4. The old edition conflates autism with depression, since they both involve a seeming withdrawl from the world.
This problem is – you guessed it – fixed. Kit still develops temporary depressive symptoms when he gets too drawn into Darryl’s mental world. But this is a result of Kit reacting badly to certain properties of that world, not an inherent property of Darryl or of autism. Nita still learns to cope with her grief for her mother, and stops withdrawing, but this is no longer brought about through comparisons between herself and Darryl.
So when we get rid of those problems, what’s left?
Darryl is left. Brave, cheerful, clever, wonderful Darryl. And this time there isn’t a mountain of fail holding him down.
The Verdict: Recommended
For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.