Review: Mockingbird

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Reader Group. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Ten year old Caitlin’s older brother Devon is dead. Such a devastating loss would be hard for any child to understand. For Caitlin, it is even harder because she is a child with Asperger’s syndrome.

The Good: A child dying. Who understands that? Who knows why? How can anyone, adult, parent, friend, know what to do when faced with such a tragedy? It’s a community tragedy, because Devon was killed at school. Two other children shot a teacher, Devon, and another student.

Erskine takes that tragedy and makes it so much worse, because of how Caitlin processes the world around her. It’s not so much that sees the world in terms of black and white as that she wants to see it in black and white because “[i]t’s easier when things are black and white. . . . Colors are mushy and I don’t know where they end or what happens to them when they run into each other because they change. … When you mix red and yellow it might come out orange like the sun when it’s setting but when you mix red and yellow another time it might come out like a school bus and when you do it again it might come out like a hornet. It’s always different. You don’t know what to expect.”

Caitlin, who likes to know what to expect, is faced with that which has no road map. The loss of her brother, Devon. She loves books because they have answers, but even that can only give her so much. She learns about Closure, and knows she and her father need Closure, but no one can tell her a step by step way to achieve that.

Caitlin is also incredibly literal. She is the type of girl who hears “a part of Devon will always be with you” and thinks that the ashes from his cremation are now in the air and around her. Devon, a Boy Scout, had been working on his Eagle Scout project when he died. He was making a chest.  How did Devon die? A school shooter shot him in the chest. Devon’s Chest/ Devon’s Chest. Erskine makes this literal, as Caitlin at one point crawls into Devon’s chest and wishes to make his heart beat.

A Facial Expressions Chart hangs on the wall of the counselor’s office in school. It is there to help Caitlin decode what people are thinking. Already, she knows it is not always accurate. A mean person may smile. That Caitlin needs this extra step, needs to help develop those things to understand how others think and what others feel, does not mean that she is without feelings. Early on, she describes how “the gray of outside is inside. Inside the living room. Inside the chest. Inside me. It’s so gray that turning on a lamp is too sharp and it hurts. So the lamps are off. But it’s still too bright. It should be black inside and that’s what I want so I put my head under the sofa cushion where the green plaid fabric smells like Dad’s sweat and Devon’s socks and my popcorn and the cushion feels soft and heavy on my head and I push deeper so my shoulders and chest can get under it too and there’s a weight on me that holds me down and keeps me from floating and falling and floating and falling like a the bird.”

Caitlin needs help in both connecting with her own loss and realizing what her emotions mean and in having empathy for others. When she tries to help other children, it doesn’t end well because she does for them what she would want done for herself. This gets misinterpreted as being mean at its best and being weird at its worst. Part of Mockingbird is Caitlin working, really working, at achieving empathy. Yes, it is more difficult for her because of Asperger’s, but isn’t it difficult for others? The children in her class who think she is being mean and a weirdo — aren’t they also lacking empathy? Josh, a class bully, at one point is truly bewildered that people don’t like him. He thinks people hate him because his cousin was one of the school shooters. He doesn’t connect his own behaviour (being mean, pulling kids off monkey bars) to how he is treated. It isn’t just Caitlin with her Asperger’s who needs to work on emotions, and empathy.

Mockingbird is younger than the books I usually review here, but I wanted to read it and review it because it is one of the 2010 National Book Award Finalists for Young People’s Literature. Would Mockingbird have appeal for middle school readers? I think so. Caitlin is ten, and the rule some people go by is that readers don’t want to read about those younger than themselves. I think they will, depending on the story. Some teens like sad books, and want to read about things like loss and grief. They are aware that school shootings happen, and Mockingbird examines a community’s grief and loss without being either exploitative or graphic. Classmates and family and friends have Asperger’s, and Mockingbird gives a look into that perspective, showing it’s unique and different but not “weird.” Also, Mockingbird gets its title from To Kill A Mockingbird and while Erskine describes why in the book, someone who has read that book or seen that film will have a deeper appreciation of its meaning in this book.

How accurate is Mockingbird in it’s depiction of Asperger’s? In Erskine’s interview with Publisher’s Weekly, she reveals that her daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s. In an interview with Amy Brecount White, Erskine mentions the research she did. And there is some more information at a Penguin blog post. So I’d say that while it may not be accurate for everyone, what book is? It is accurate for some.

For another opinion entirely, Jonathan Hunt at Heavy Medal weighs in. I believe my favorite part is about Eagle Scouts.

16 thoughts on “Review: Mockingbird

  1. I also agree that older kids may want to read this. I also have been following some of the bloggers who have written that “Mockingbird” did not seem “authentic”. Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism are diagnoses that encompass a very wide range of behaviors. In fact, I would venture to say, that although there are many behavioral similarities, no two cases are ever alike. I say this becasue autism is a sensory issue, and no two people can ever have identical sensory experiences in their lives. Our sensory experiences inform our lives. And so it is for people on the spectrum. I think Erskine has written a book true to her experience and understanding of autism. And it’s awesome.


  2. Awww. I’m glad somebody else read this book and got the same things (or nearly the same things) out of it as me. I read all these reviews of people saying things like “She’s writing about too many things at once, writing about school shootings and sibling death and Aspergers all in one book!” and I kept thinking “but it’s NOT a book ABOUT all those things! It’s a book about dealing with grief! And it happens to be from the point of view of someone who has difficulty with emotions! And it just so happens that her grief is the result of a school shooting!” And does it make anyone else uncomfortable when people talk about whether or not a character is an authentic Whatever-Label-They-Happen-to-Be? Why should there be ONE kind of kid-with-Aspergers, any more than there is ONE kind of black kid, one kind of Christian kid, one kind of nerdy kid? Isn’t that still stereotyping, even in the name of being “authentic”? Obviously there are FACTS that ought to be accurate, but otherwise Caitlin should be a character with her OWN personality, not just a Perfect Representation Of The Average Kid With Aspergers.

    I loved this book. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. (And normally I avoid serious realism!)


  3. Rockinlibrarian said:
    “I’m glad somebody else read this book and got the same things (or nearly the same things) out of it as me.”

    Actually, I had a hard time parcing out the the final verdict in this review, at least from the reviewers standpoint. Most of the review was factual, which is fine. But she never came out and said, “I really enjoyed this book and it deserves to be put on the shortlist of both the NBA and Newbery Awards.

    Her summation was:
    “I’d say that while it may not be accurate for everyone, what book is? It is accurate for some.”

    That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.


  4. I thought this book was excellent. I cried almost all the way through, it touched me so much. I have a son with Asperger’s as well, although not nearly as severe as the child depicted in this book. There is so much variance in that diagnosis that there is no “accuracy” issue as far as I’m concerned. Every person with Asperger’s acts different from another, although of course there are some similarities as well. I think the book is well suited for 5th through 9th grade, and many adults would get a lot out of it as well.


  5. Chris: I agree absolutely.

    RockinLibrarian: I agree with your assessment of the blogger reviews but Richard has a point. LizB really isn’t loving this book the way you and I do! Or, at least, she isn’t owning it one way or the other. It is clear she understands Caitlyn and I find that pretty groovy.

    I think reviewers like Jonathan Hunt and Elizabeth Bird missed the boat on this one. While some of their criticisms were accurate (i.e. Eagle Scout project requirements), they clearly didn’t comprehend the spirit of the book.

    For example: Fuse says “the book is attempting too much at one time” – When You Reach Me and One Crazy Summer tackle a lot at once and Fuse loves them (though how can she judge their accuracy when she was not alive at the time? – I’m not holding this against her, it’s just that she souldn’t require authors to have a relation diagnosed with asperger’s to write about it). Mockingbird was the same for me. A lot happening, but when it’s done well, it’s great. And hey, life is complicated. Even for kids. Especially for kids.

    For me “Out of my Mind” was like a Lifetime movie. The writing just didn’t pluck that emotional chord in a meaningful way.

    As for Jonathan’s disparaging review, I feel like he’s the kid of guy who studies the facets of a single gem for a flaw instead appreciating the beauty of a tiara. He needs to step back and look at the book as a whole. (I also can’t believe he read and understood “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” because Erskine employed similar devices.)

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and I can understand why it was nominated for the National Book Award. It’s on my Mock Newbery list!


  6. It’s too bad this one didn’t make Nina’s short list.
    It could have been a “Season of Gifts–Reloaded–Knock Down Drag Out”.
    I don’t think we’ll see that level of controversy this year.

    Nina is the last hold out in giving a review on this book.
    Now I don’t think we’ll see it, but I would have loved to have seen her take.


  7. Oh I didn’t mean that I was glad someone else loved it. Just that someone GOT THE SAME IDEA OF WHAT IT WAS TRYING TO DO. The rest of my comment is my explanation of what I mean by that– that it’s not a book About School Shootings or About Aspergers that addresses those things incompletely, but a book About Grief in which the other things are just details making the book what it is. Personally I don’t care if other people don’t LOVE it, and I can clearly see why they wouldn’t– a tearjerker is certainly not to everyone’s taste no matter how good or not good it is (though usually tearjerkers are not to MY taste, so what the heck). I don’t necessarily think it’s Award Quality. But it was nice to know my INTERPRETATION of it wasn’t so totally off the mark as it seemed to be from reading other people’s reviews. I can’t very well argue its quality with someone when we can’t even get past agreeing what the book was ABOUT.


  8. It is funny how a book and engender passionate reactions and extreme polarization.
    Either people “really loved it” or “absolutely despised it”.
    I’m not saying Mockingbird even approaches this catagory!

    Just for jollies I went out on Amazon to look at the star breakdown of the following books.

    “Love You Forever”
    Stars Votes
    ***** 646
    **** 67


  9. Sorry…the gun went off by mistake…
    So…I’ll try this again…

    It is funny how a book and engender passionate reactions and extreme polarization.
    Either people “really loved it” or “absolutely despised it”.
    I’m not saying Mockingbird even approaches this catagory!

    Just for jollies I went out on Amazon to look at the star breakdown of the following books.
    Usually it’s a nice progressive downhill curve.

    “Love You Forever”
    Stars – Votes
    ***** 646
    **** 67
    *** 24
    ** 26
    * 205

    “The Giving Tree”
    Stars – Votes
    ***** 506
    **** 54
    *** 27
    ** 19
    * 100

    I wonder if there is any other children’s book that can top the star pattern of “Love You Forever”?


  10. Opps…typo in previous post…corrected sentencs follows…
    It is funny how a book CAN engender passionate reactions and extreme polarization.


  11. Well, quite the convo while I was in Albuquerque!

    Chris, given what I know about diagnosis for children on the spectrum, I think it is a difficult thing to second-guess a diagnosis whether for a fictional or real child.

    Gary & Peter: yep, MOCKINGJAY, MOCKINGBIRD, MOCKINGBIRDS. I keep on double checking that I use the right title for each book. And all are very different books, but the two BIRDS are both influenced in the naming/content by TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

    rocknlibrarian, sometimes things just don’t work for different readers. For me, this was not a “too many things going on at once” book, but I have read books where I’ve felt that. For me, this book tied the threads together and did so with purpose. It worked for me.

    Richard, as a general rule, I only review books I liked. Especially with how I write up the review (the good), I don’t like to overuse “And what I liked about this book was….” and “I liked…” etc. For those that I really enjoy, I add them to my Favorite Books list, which is noted in the review. For the handful of times that I end up reviewing something that doesn’t quite work for me or that I don’t like, I note that aspect of the book. So for this? Yes, I liked it; but no, it’s not a Favorite Book. As for the NBA, since 2 of the 5 were reviewed by me before the finalists were announced, I didn’t want to have half the reviews consider NBA and half not. I just got the 5th book, so before the announcement will do a separate post about the finalists. I don’t read enough of the potential Newberys to make predictions there, but I do enjoy reading HEAVY MEDAL to get that.

    As for the accuracy, my point was not to endorse or not to endorse. It’s that, if someone is saying “this isn’t accurate for kids with Aspergers based on what I see in life/classroom/library”, I’m not going to start a “but you’re WRONG.” That’s their reader response and life experience that has happened outside the book.


  12. Margo, I think with almost every book with a person on the spectrum, various responses are given as to accuracy. Then they get into the discussion with books like EMMA JEAN LAZARUS (I think that’s the one…) that do not label the child and then reviewers and bloggers discuss is she or isn’t she, why or why not a label. For this book, did I believe that this child processed things differently than many of her classmates? Yes. Did I find her a believable character? Yes. Do I want this to turn into a “well I know someone on the spectrum and…” discussion? No; because that gets into people’s private lives, or other people’s private lives. So bottom line, I agree with you, and find this interesting in how it always seems to come up with these books, more so than other areas, it seems.

    DogEar, basically, yes, liked the book, (i’ll get into the NBA finalists on its own post) but alas it did not make my favorite books list. I haven’t read OUT OF MY MIND and with all the YA I still have to read, probably won’t anytime soon but I enjoy reading the discussions about it, especially the second-guessing of the parents. Isn’t that what real life parents have to deal with every single day by well meaning folk who don’t live it 24/7? “I know a doctor…” “I saw someting on CNN…” “why don’t you….” “why don’t you….” “why didn’t do”

    Richard, I do enjoy the different takes on the books!

    rocknlibrarian, interesting point at looking what this book is about. As you said, I read it as a book about grief, with the grieving being shown through the eyes of the person with the least amount of resources to deal with it. I’ve sometimes begun a book thinking one thing and found it not working, only to realize (either myself or from a review) that the book was about something else entirely and once I made that shift, turning out to enjoy/get the book much better. Sort of “wow this love story is pretty crappy….OH, it’s not a romance, it’s about friendship, yes, as that it really works!”


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