Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mockingbird. A lovely and important book

I’ve just finished a most amazing book, Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine. The story is simply lovely but this juvenile fiction is no light-weight read. Its tale grows from a place of adversity. Mockingbird was written in response to the Virginia Tech Shootings of 2007 as well as the author’s desire to let people know what it’s like to experience Asperger’s Syndrome.
Mockingbird opens with 5th grader, Caitlyn Smith, reeling from the challenges of making it through her brother’s funeral. One of those challenges is that Caitlyn’s mother has already passed away after a battle with cancer. This situation would be difficult for any child. However, Caitlyn has Asperger’s Syndrome. She experiences the world differently than everyone she knows—and, her brother had been the one person in her life that taught her how to behave in ways that allow her to engage in her world. As Caitlyn says, “how not to be annoying to other people.”

Now that Devon is gone, Caitlyn has to rely on her grieving father and a counselor at school to get her back on track with fifth grade and ready to enter the middle school where her brother was shot and killed. As terrifying as this would be for a child, Caitlyn has some unique gifts and talents that help her her out. Readers will cheer out loud when they learn how she employs her specialness on a journey toward personal and community healing.

At first, I had difficulty reading Mockingbird because of the text. Words were capitalized in unusual ways that threw me off until I realized that the author was using this style to slow readers down so that they could feel how a child with Asperger’s Syndrome feels. For example, whenever Caitlyn mentally checks herself to make eye contact, the text reads, “Look At the Person”. Clearly, making eye contact has been a skill that Caitlyn has purposely worked on with her counselor at school--it's literally a school lesson she is working to internalize and we can see that through the way words are emphasized in the text. There are many, many ways that we learn a child with Asperger’s works to live in a non-Asperger’s world in Mockingbird. I’m grateful for that experience.

As the story progresses we see how much Caitlyn treasures the nickname of Scout that her brother bestowed on her since she is like Scout in his favorite movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, if you like the book/movie To Kill a Mockingbird, you will like Mockingbird. There are interesting parallels.

Caitlyn works to make friends and achieve developmental milestones such as experiencing empathy and emotional closure after her brother’s death. Her black-and-white no-nonsense manner of approaching these challenges is heartwarming in its way. And, Caitlyn becomes involved in a project that helps herself and others heal in a "good and strong and beautiful" way. Yay Caitlyn!

Mockingbird is a book that I recommend to readers in grades four and up. The author has done magnificent research:

I believe that a child with Asperger’s would appreciate people reading this book so that others could understand how it feels to walk in their shoes.

If you have a chance to read Mockingbird, please let me know how you liked it and what you took from it. I would love to see this book win the Virginia Readers Choice Award for Middle School in 2012.

Awards Mockingbird has already won

– Virginia Readers Choice nominee, 2011-12

– 2011 SIBA finalist

– Capitol Choices 2011

– Golden Kite Award 2011

Erskine, K. Mockingbird. New York: Scholastic Books, 2010. Print.

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