I devoured The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg one day over Christmas vacation, thoroughly enjoying its odd and lovable protagonist, twelve-year-old Candice. The 2013 young adult novel, which in some countries goes by its original title My Life as an Alphabet, was serious yet comical. By the first paragraph, I was already laughing in recognition. When I re-read the book through a disability lens, however, it raised questions and concerns about autism politics and representation.
Candice lives in Albright, Australia, with her disconnected father and depressed mother. She narrates her life story and current conflicts through the format of a school assignment for English class—to write an autobiographical essay with twenty-six paragraphs, each focusing around one letter of the alphabet. Right away we learn how intense Candice is when she decides to devote one book chapter to each letter instead—after all, she has a lot more to say about her life than academic restrictions would allow. She is actively trying to help her mother emerge from depression, bring her father and estranged Rich Uncle Brian back together, heal from her own sadness over her baby sister Sky’s death, and make friends.
Candice is a character who is easy to view as autistic. She enjoys sameness, whether in the seat she sits in or her literature canon, which consists of the dictionary and Charles Dickens. She understands language literally, questioning, “Why do people say ‘Yeah, right!’ when they actually mean ‘No, wrong!’?” (184) When it comes to communication, she finds it exhausting to speak, especially around newer people or for longer exchanges, so she often uses a pen and a pad of paper for conversation. She stims by humming and likes to “fix on” her computer programmer-father’s electronic equipment and their colorful flashing lights, which “make patterns that don’t repeat. They are beautiful and much better than television.” (15) She has a horrible sense of balance and loves her adult-sized tricycle. She also shows some signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder—mainly, her perfectionistic drive and her so-called “persnickety pencil case” with special dividers. These elements feel familiar to me as a reader diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
One part of the book that readers may consider controversial is Candice’s disability identity politics. Specifically, there are instances throughout the book when Candice communicates that she isn’t disabled. At the beginning of the book, she explains why her classmates have christened her with the nickname “Essen:”
It’s a phonetic representation of S.N., which is short for Special Needs. Many people think I have I have learning disabilities, but they are mistaken. I once wrote a note to Jen saying that everyone is special and everyone has needs, so her insult (because that’s what she intended it to be) is wide of the mark. (3)
When she goes to tea at her friend Douglas’s house, his mother tries to accommodate Candice by asking if she’s okay with mixing different color foods on one plate, and asks her, “You are autistic, aren’t you?” When Candice responds with a “no,” confusion mounts.
“Then what are you?” she asked.
“I’m me,” I said. (59)
Later in the book, in an act of self-advocacy, Candice writes a note to her substitute teacher explaining why she can’t complete an assignment in the same manner as her schoolmates. “Some people think I am on some sort of spectrum, but I don’t think I am. It’s just that I am different from most students,” she writes. (200-201) Interestingly, during my first read, I didn’t immediately think of her as disabled. I did think of her as like me when I was her age. Adding a disability lens, it was easy for me to see her autism. Looking back, I felt like she felt at ages twelve and thirteen. I believe I would’ve enjoyed reading the book in my early teen years, during which time I didn’t have an autism spectrum diagnosis. I related to Candice more in the past than the present. Now I’m not quite so literal, scrupulous, or naïve.
I’ve looked around, but I haven’t yet found Barry Jonsberg confirming whether he intended Candice to be autistic. Is Candice’s diagnostic ambiguity a problem? Does it show us that Candice is okay with being different, but uncomfortable with the idea of being disabled? Did Jonsberg leave autism out so readers with and without specific labels might feel a kinship to her? Maybe it’s a reflection of real life, in that Candice, as female, is less likely to receive an autism diagnosis, or more likely to receive one at a later age. In any case, who am I to judge how she identifies in terms of ability?
As an autistic reader, I enjoyed that Candice’s autistic traits and personality aren’t separated into two distinct piles, but rather integrated with one another. Candice is precise, determined, absolutely honest and straightforward, friendly, and smart. She’s a wordsmith with a supremely expansive vocabulary and a wry sense of humor. In many ways, these parts of her personality are tied also to being on the autism spectrum. Her autistic characteristics aren’t grouped together and viewed as negative. By making Candice unabashedly, genuinely be herself, Jonsberg sends the message to accept and celebrate our differences.
Candice’s emotions and desire for friendship are two areas that stand out in the narrative. These same two areas are highly important when it comes to fighting autism stereotypes. Candice experiences both a broad range of feelings and a depth within each specific emotion. She feels anger, confusion, excitement, fear, grief, guilt, happiness, and hope. Candice’s colorful palate of feelings is proof that autistic characters can expansively experience emotions and empathy, instead of falling into robotic two-dimensionality.
When it comes to the social realm, Candice struggles with relationships. When her new friend Douglas Benson invites her to tea, she recognizes that “[t]his was both amazingly exciting and deeply troubling. Exciting, because no one had ever invited me to afternoon tea before.” (39) She faithfully writes to her American penpal Denille despite lack of reciprocity, and she likes and sees the kids in her class as potential friends, despite their bullying behavior. It’s painfully familiar to see her giving the benefit of the doubt to callous classmates: She tells her mom, who is “dubious” at her bright outlook on a project with a mean schoolmate, “Jen Marshall has many wonderful qualities. I am confident we will become bosom buddies, or as Jen would say, BFFs—Best Friends Forever.” (180) Despite her difficulties with friendship, Candice is depicted as loving her fellow humans. From worrying that her goldfish will think she’s a god when she really just wants to be friends to creating a new part of her daily routine in order to protect her new friend Douglas, Candice is depicted as a good friend who tries very hard to help others and cares about their wellbeing.
Although she’s usually independent and confident in herself, Candice occasionally faces moments of self-hatred, in which she wishes she were different, and these, too, felt realistic. Considering the idea of alternate universes, Candice thinks, “I liked the idea of a normal me somewhere, doing normal things and thinking normal thoughts—a Candice who wasn’t called a shortened form of Special Needs, who had a boyfriend and a phone, who went to sleepovers and drank cider and liked rap songs.” (125) Other sadly realistic parts of the book included school bullying, such as Jen picking on Candice’s romance by saying “The retards have got together,” (148) and the many mentions of how Candice learned to control her stimming by fighting the urge to hum to herself, despite how humming soothes her in moments of anxiety or confusion.
I felt Barry Jonsberg captured the feeling of being Candice without making her into a laughingstock. She embarks on adventures and takes drastic measures in order to help the people around her, but she isn’t a superhero—just an extremely determined young teen. Her conflict is not autism, which is also refreshing. Some may argue this is because her autism is less defined than it would be in a character with a confirmed diagnosis. How much does a mainly positive portrayal of autism mean when it’s situated in this context—that is, the ambiguity surrounding whether or not the main character is intended to be autistic?
Although I enjoyed the book, I’d be remiss if I glossed over its problematic elements. To me, the most problematic element of the narrative was how Jonsberg linked Candice’s oddities to her baby sister’s death from SIDS. Candice says others believe “[t]hat I blame myself for what happened to Sky and that my strange behavior stems from guilt. […] Was it all, in some peculiar fashion, a way of punishing myself for imaginary crimes? It would explain a lot. My writing of notes, rather than talking to people I don’t know well. Some of my … obsessions.” (51) Candice notes that despite her guilt, helplessness, and grief, she rationally realizes that it’s not her fault. Unfortunately, this sentiment hardly contradicts Jonsberg’s imaginary linking of autism symptoms with a traumatic event. Sure, some autistic people may manifest post-traumatic stress disorder differently than nonautistics. But it’s harmful for Jonsberg to explain away a constellation of traits typically associated with the autism spectrum as a trauma reaction.
The second area I see as problematic is the way Candice’s character describes kissing. She thinks her first kiss is nothing to “fuss” over. In a detached fashion, she remarks that it didn’t feel like “love,” which she equates to physical bodily signs. Candice writes, “Apparently the pressure of lips is also meant to be pleasurable. Tingles are supposed to run down your spine. My spine was tingle-free. I checked.” (147) I find it upsetting that in this moment, Candice spouts scientific understandings of feelings—especially because throughout the rest of the book, she is caring and empathetic with a firm grasp on love. Writers can fall into the trap of denying autistic characters sexual agency. It’s easy to over-focus on sensory issues instead of sexual and romantic orientation. For instance, Candice wonders, “If kisses are so wonderful, why are they sloppy, messy, and involve exchanging bodily fluids?” (145) When it comes to love plotlines, I want to read about autistic people making empowered choices about relationships and romance—or the lack thereof—inclusive of all sexual orientations. I don’t want to wade through nonautistic interpretations of relational difficulty that strip away romantic and sexual possibilities. Alternative interpretations of Candice’s reaction to the kiss could include that she is just kissing the wrong person, or that she could be queer. At least she seems open to different concepts of sexuality, as evidenced in a comment she makes to her penpal about “clos[ing]your eyes when a boy kisses you (or a girl, I imagine. I don’t see why it should be gender-specific).” (146)
The other aspect I see as a problem in the book is how Jonsberg deals with Candice’s mother’s depression. The character is deeply depressed for almost the whole book, until she begins antidepressants toward the end. As someone who’s been depressed myself and has taken SSRIs in the past, I disliked that Jonsberg called the medication “happy pills” in dialogue (208). Jonsberg hardly invented the colloquialism “happy pills”, but I wish writers would avoid this phrasing unless it directly adds to the scene. I felt it was a bit too simplistic for medication to replace the mother’s experience of depression with happiness.
In the two other young adult novels I’ve read that feature girls on the autism spectrum, authors pathologized autistic ways of being. Whether omitting an official autism label allows Jonsberg to celebrate Candice’s differences is up for interpretation. In my opinion, Candice is still a three-dimensional autistic female protagonist. Most importantly, she sees her life as interconnected to others’ lives. The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee is a fun, well-written young adult book, if an imperfect autism read.