How to Fly with Broken Wings describes a young boy who tries to make friends at his school and housing estate while pursuing his love of flight. Author Jane Elson writes simply, with lots of British-isms, but the plot is needlessly complicated and chaotic. There are more themes and subplots than could be counted and the majority aren’t satisfactorily managed. The plot is also bizarrely similar to the 1980s movie The Boy Who Could Fly, where an autistic boy is bullied because he believes he can fly. The book contains interesting historical details that might inspire readers to do some research on their own, like the facts about Spitfire planes and their female pilots during World War II, but the book ultimately provides a single-faceted understanding of autism and many of the painful interactions with his teacher and peers would likely hit too close to home for autistic students.
How to Fly with Broken Wings uses the classic trick that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time popularized: writing a character as stereotypically autistic without naming the character as such. This automatically shields the author from criticism, provides an excuse for any inaccuracies, and creates an excuse of plausible deniability: the character isn’t labeled as autistic so the author can’t be blamed for poor representation. Anyone buying the book will note that the publisher’s description and all of the reviews mention that Willem has Asperger’s, so it’s clear to readers that his standardized traits are meant to represent autism. Willem stims, dumps facts on people at random, counts obsessively, interprets words literally, doesn’t want his food to touch, and reduces facial expressions to “happy face” and “sad face”. Although I always appreciate seeing young characters with anxiety, it’s hard to see Willem as a positive representation of autism for other kids when the author won’t identify him as such.
As in many literary depictions of autism, Willem seems to check off all of the diagnostic boxes without having much of a personality beyond this. Willem isn’t always treated with respect or dignity, particularly when he’s reduced to facts about airplanes and telling people that he can fly. There are also moments that Elson’s writing verges on tropes: in the middle of the book Willem suddenly becomes a magical autistic detective, the likes of which are too often seen in books or on television. He pulls out several pieces of physical evidence and lines of argument to prove that one person wasn’t involved in gang riots, although these abilities are never previously mentioned.
What I found most troublesome about How to Fly with Broken Wings is the way that Willem is treated at school, and how Elson doesn’t fully address these problems. Willem is integrated into his classes at school (although he receives special assignments and it seems like additional support) but it’s evident that his peers recognize him as different. The other main character, a girl named Sasha, describes him in her first chapter as “one of life’s special people” and regularly refers to him as her special friend as their relationship develops. Willem is relentlessly bullied at school and in danger at home, although no other characters do anything about this. Other kids make him jump off of objects or buildings and there are rival gangs in the area who are also interested in manipulating Willem.
In class, his teacher frequently singles him out: instead of completing equations for homework like his peers, Willem is required to make two friends. The teacher tries to mix up students to get kids to interact with Willem and pulls each aside to say that she wants them to show Willem friendship. By the end of the book, she recognizes that forcing Willem to make friends in class encouraged him to interact with his bullies and put him in numerous dangerous situations, and she apologizes.
For autistic kids who were forced into a “buddy system” or assigned friends in class, I think this plotline could be damaging. The assignment led to Willem being deceived or put in dangerous situations more than once, and the author offers no clear condemnation of this. Willem’s main bully apologizes for his actions a few times but immediately returns to hurting Willem, and when he eventually befriends him it’s in order to gain favor with the girl he likes. Many adults apologize to Willem, including his teacher, who recognizes that forcing him to make friends put his life in danger—but not that her treatment of Willem was emotionally manipulative. There’s no further discussion of any emotional repercussions. This is risky – playing on so many stereotyped descriptions of autism makes it easy to find something identifiable about Willem but the ways in which he’s hurt by peers and adults are not painted as entirely negative, and will leave the same readers who identified with Willem uncomfortable or distressed. In combination with the stereotyped understanding of autism and the simplistic writing style, I wasn’t able to enjoy this book and I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending it to autistic readers.