Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

For the second night of Hanukkah, I thought I would review the book that recently won the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and is on most people's short list for the 2011 Newbery Awards--Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.

If yesterday's The Thirteenth Princess was based on a fairy tale, then Mockingbird was inspired by a nightmare--namely, the shooting of 33 people at Virginia Polytechnic University in Blacksburg, VA, close to where the author lives.  In this book, Erskine looks at how someone can pick up the pieces if his or her family have been the victims of such senseless violence.  But the protagonist and narrator of the book is not just your average "someone"--she's a 5th grader with Asperger's syndrome who not only lost her beloved older brother who helped her navigate the world, but whose mother has died from cancer, leaving her with only her grieving and just-barely-functioning father in the home.

This is a rough set-up for a story--but also, I think, a brilliant one.  Most of us can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one in something like 9/11 or Columbine or the VPI tragedy.  But imagine trying to deal with it compounded by the issues related to Asperger's, an autistic spectrum disorder that is usually not associated with a lack of cognitive or "academic" understanding, but with poor social skills, the inability to pick up on non-verbal or non-literal cues, and a lack of empathy or understanding of the feeling with other.  As I said, I think this was a brilliant concept of Erskine's.

So much of the book deals with the main character, Caitlin, trying to develop empathy for other with the help of a committed school counselor and a few off-beat, maybe/could-be friends.  But, of course, that is just the ploy; the real business of the book is for us, the readers, to develop empathy for people like Caitlin. Erskine puts us inside Caitlin's head, who dictates the whole book in first person, explaining not only what she says or does, but why she is saying or doing it.  It takes a little while to get into the thinking pattern, especially the verbal cues Caitlin thinks to herself to behave as she knows she is expected by the world to behave.  But it is definitely worth the effort, for once you figure out her system, it is a wonderful way to see why people that the world thinks act "crazy" are really behaving quite logically-within their own system.

There are a few other things that I appreciate about the book.  I love that it has an important tie-in with To Kill A Mockingbird, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  I like the ending, which is hopefully without a "happily ever after" context that doesn't fit the situation.  I like seeing schools making a difference to kids like Caitlin, and even overwhelmed teachers who might act like dunderheads, but can realize their mistakes, apologize, and try to do better.  The characters in this book are all quite easy to relate to:  flawed people doing their best under a bad situation.  They are people in progress, just as we all are, and they are at least moving in the right direction.

My one reservation, at least in terms of this blog, is the question, "Is this really a middle schoolers book?"  Again, I'm not sure.  But I'm inclined to think not, at least for the younger end of the spectrum.  Once again, the reading level is appropriate, especially since it is being narrated by a 5th grader, and middle schoolers can definitely relate to the context if not the specific situation.  On the other hand, it is a grim situation to pick up and read about.  I'll confess that I didn't want to read it, although now I'm so glad that I did.   And it does take a while to get inside Caitlin's world and understand what is going on through her perspective.  So maybe it will work for 13 or 14 year olds, but I think it is a bit mature for the 10-12 crowd.  My son read it, and he thought it was pretty good, although sad and sometimes confusing.  And since it is such a wonderful book, if the reader can really get into it, I would advise holding off with your children until you think they are ready to really benefit from it.

But as an adult, I found it a very powerful, enlightening, and uplifting book.  There is kind of a mantra in the book about making something "good and strong and beautiful."  I think that is exactly what Erskine has done with this book.


  1. Great insights, thanks. I'm about to begin teaching this next week to 7th and 8th graders as part of a literature circle.

  2. Oh, lucky you! It's a really powerful book, and I think it would lend itself to great discussion with older middle schoolers. Let us know how it goes!