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.