Today’s Book: “Changeling” by Delia Sherman
The Plot: Neef, a mortal changeling (i.e. a mortal who was swapped with a fairy and brought to the fairy realms as a child) accidentally breaks a geas. To be allowed to return to her home in a fairy version of Central Park, she must undergo a dangerous quest.
Autistic Character(s): Neef’s fairy changeling counterpart (i.e. the fairy who was swapped with Neef and brought up by mortals). Both Neef and Changeling share a legal, human name, but since true names are dangerous in the fairy world, Neef’s counterpart is referred to mostly as “Changeling”.
Changeling folklore is my problematic fave. The idea of fairies switching their babies with human babies – resulting in human parents having to take care of a disabled, or otherwise defective, fairy child – goes back deep in Western culture. There’s something compelling to many disabled people about the idea that we are not broken or defective humans, however we might appear – we are simply magical creatures who don’t fit into a human’s world. But of course, there’s also something compelling to many ableist parents about the idea that they were owed a normal child, and someone stole it – and that their real, disabled child isn’t quite theirs.
While we no longer believe in fairies, it’s not difficult to see echoes of the changeling myth in modern parents who complain of regressive autism “stealing” their child, or who speak with victory about “getting their child back” when various issues improve. Nor is it difficult to trace a lineage from the parents of changeling folklore, who often threatened the disabled child with harm in hopes of scaring it away and getting the original one back, to various dangerous quack treatments for autism today.
Some disabled people, including myself at times, find something empowering in the idea of being magical creatures. Others find it literally dehumanizing, and will fight tooth and nail to be recognized as always and only and entirely human. (Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s essay on “The Shape of Water” gives an example of this latter perspective.)
Anyway, Delia Sherman’s “Changeling” is a middle-grade fantasy adventure that doesn’t get even a little bit into any of this complexity, which might explain some of my issues with it.
Or maybe that’s not fair. I don’t expect middle-grade books to be super intellectually complex, or to grapple with all the emotional issues that concern me as an adult. I may be barking up the wrong reviewing tree.
Changeling’s role in the story is a very familiar one for autistic sidekicks. Neef discovers her early in the quest, in a dangerous situation, and impulsively promises to keep her safe even though Changeling annoys her. From that point on, Changeling tags along on the rest of the quest: mostly a burden, mostly annoying to Neef, occasionally very useful, always overtly displaying one stereotypical autistic trait or another, and mostly too busy melting down (or shutting down, or engaging in desparate stimming as she tries to cope with all these new experiences) to give her perspective on anything in particular.
Neef is a cutely bratty tween, and she has no training in how to deal with autistic people, so I don’t exactly expect her to be good at dealing with Changeling, but her consistently annoyed cluelessness didn’t exactly make me enjoy the book.
Changeling stumped up behind me, her face stony. “You took me by surprise,” she said. “I do not like surprises.”
I was in no mood to deal with fairy nerves. “Well, you’re just going to have to get used to them.”
“We’re on a quest, that’s why. There’s going to be surprises, and things jumping out of bushes, and all kinds of things you don’t like. If you melt down every time that happens, we’re dead. And I mean that literally.”
Her mouth set in a grim line. “I am afraid. I want to go home.”
“Me, too. Remember what I told you back at the Museum? We have to finish the quest first.”
Changeling hummed. I tapped my foot. “Very well,” she said at last. “I will do my best to expect the unexpected, and I will try not to have a meltdown. It is only fair to warn you that I am not always in control of them.”
She sounded so like the Pooka promising to try and behave that my irritation vanished. “And I’ll do my best to explain things when I can.”
We do get one interesting bit of world-building about changelings early on. Not only is Changeling an autistic child, as the folklore would suggest, but Neef recognizes many of her autistic traits as fairy traits. She counts items to soothe herself, because many fairies also have a counting compulsion; she cannot stand to be touched, because neither can many fairies; her meltdowns are “fairy fits,” and at least one actual fairy has one of those during the story as well.
Neef does make accommodations for a few of these traits, such as holding on to Changeling by her clothes, when hanging on to each other is necessary, instead of holding her hand. But if Changeling’s traits are fairy traits, and Neef has spent her entire life learning how to get along among fairies, then something doesn’t quite add up. Her knowledge of mythological fairies is extensive and she has been deliberately taught and tested on it often – but her knowledge of how to deal with Changeling is really quite small.
I find myself wishing that the book was told from both perspectives and not just Neef’s, because I really want to know what Changeling thinks of many of the developments in the book. She has just discovered that fairies are real and that she, technically, is one. How does she feel about that? Does she want to learn more about fairies in order to better understand herself, or to cling to her adoptive family? How does she feel about Neef, who is essentially a non-autistic version of herself, and who doesn’t seem to like her much? In the latter half of the story, she spends a lot of time looking into a magic handheld mirror that gives her information; what is she watching and learning in there, apart from the quest-relevant things that Neef asks for? Changeling doesn’t say anything about any of these things, and Neef is profoundly uncurious about them.
Changeling also, as I mentioned, does very useful and clever things for Neef a few times, in between shutting/melting down. It’s very unclear whether, and in what way, this changes Neef’s opinion about her; Neef is self-centered like many tweens, and is more concerned with charging ahead to the next part of the quest.
At the end of the book, there are signs that Neef and Changeling have begun to like each other a bit more. Changeling asks Neef to come visit her in the future, and Neef seems moved by the request. But like many friendships and romances in adventure stories, this felt a bit tacked on. I had very little sense of when in the book this sense of friendship had emerged or why.
Overall, I really did enjoy this book more than I’m letting on. Sherman’s fairy New York is a lively and charming place that I enjoyed exploring with Neef. But from a representation standpoint, “Changeling” was a lot like reading a middle-grade version of “Silence” or “Hawk.” Another story where an NT protagonist drags around an autistic character, who is sometimes plot-useful but mostly an annoying burden. I am tired of reading this story. Given the rich emotional significance of changeling folklore is to many autistic people, Changeling’s arc feels like a missed opportunity.
The Verdict: Not Recommended
Disclosure: I have never interacted with Delia Sherman.
If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.