In my seven years of working as a resource teacher, I have encountered several students with Aspergers Syndrome. Hence, my interest in reading Mockingbird by Kathyrn Erskine about ten-year-old Caitlin who sees everything as black and white because of her syndrome. Caitlin’s older brother Devon used to help her figure out the in-between stuff, except now Devon is dead as a result of school shootings. The latter is a topic that also resonates with me because most teachers, no matter how safe their schools, have encountered violent students. Perhaps because Erskine draws on both research and personal experience, Mockingbird is one those rare books which not only provides accurate information but also strikes a perfect emotional chord.
One thing I love about Mockingbird is how Erskine takes me into Caitlin’s head, helping me relate to her on some levels. For example, listen to how Caitlin refers to death. “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.” Anyone who has ever grieved will relate to that depth of pain. Next consider how Caitlin describes the memorial service. Her father prods her to socialize because the visitors want to help them deal with life after Devon. Caitlin wonders why there are so many relatives, many of whom hardly saw Devon when he was alive. She questions the presence of the neighbor who yelled at Devon to get off his lawn. And she puzzles at the teachers who never knew Devon at all. While we all appreciate condolences, there are also moments in grief when disappearing into our room as Caitlin does would also feel like the right reaction. Last, think about Caitlin’s response to the sentiment that Devon will always be with her but just in a different way. She doesn’t want to hear this, but instead wants Devon around in the SAME way. To move forward, many of us tell ourselves that our loved ones are still with us in our hearts. Yet in all honesty we also know that we’d do most anything to have them back with us the way they were.
Erskine also helps me to somewhat understand Caitlin, even when her feelings differ dramatically from my own. Again, because death and grief are such central themes of Mockingbird, I’ll share examples of Caitlin’s methods of coping. Stepping back to the memorial service, a teacher tries to offer support by saying that maybe everyone could sit down so that “we know where you’re coming from”. In her literal way Caitlin responds, “I came from here.” When her counselor later asks if the memorial service made Caitlin feel uncomfortable, Caitlin doesn’t consider the word in its emotional context. Rather, she thinks about how the actions of covering herself with her purple fleece sweater, putting her head under the sofa cushion, or reading her dictionary make her comfortable. Because she could do none of those at the funeral, Caitlin decides that indeed she had been uncomfortable. Last, when her counselor tries to help Caitlin understand that her dad is sad, Caitlin feels at a loss. She wants to know how Mrs. Brook knows and if she (Caitlin) has done anything wrong.
Throughout Mockingbird , Caitlin must also cope with other confusing situations beyond her brother’s death. School still exists. As does life with dad. (No mention is made of mom.) In these other areas, Erskine sometimes presents Caitlin as a character to whom we can relate. For example, at school, rather than work in a group or on an assigned topic, Caitlin prefers to work independently on her own topics. In my experience, many students feel the same way. At the same time, some situations arise solely from Caitlin’s unique viewpoint. When a teacher tells Caitlin “I want you to be part of a group,” Caitlin doesn’t really understand that she isn’t being given a choice.
Given the serious topics that Erskine tackles–Aspergers Syndrome and student shootings–you might worry that Mockingbird is a sad and heavy book. Not so! Humor abounds in both little and big doses, rising naturally out of Caitlin’s unique take on the world. When describing a bully named Josh, Caitlin protests that he shouldn’t smile when doing something bad because a smile is supposed to mean something nice. Ah, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world were so straightforward? Then there’s the incident which follows. Caitlin observes a teacher lecturing Josh. When Josh shrugs, Caitlin decides he doesn’t get what the teacher meant and decides to help because that’s something she is good at. Caitlin starts by advising Josh that one shouldn’t invade another’s personal space. Josh doesn’t understand and tells her to get away. When Caitlin proceeds to explain that he needs to apologize, he flips out and the two end up in a hollering match. While I know this is a kind of serious example, I also had to laugh. It’s so real in that many fights do start with two people believing so intently that they are right when both are so obviously wrong. Last, I love Caitlin’s negative reactions to fairy tales. She thinks Cinderella is stupid because, well, she loses shoes all the time. And to her, the natural solution isn’t a prince but to go back to the dance and look for the shoe.
As a resource teacher, I have a special fondness for books which portray characters with special needs. Too much fiction has relegated these characters to secondary or stereotyped roles. In Mockingbird, Erskine puts a girl with Aspergers Syndrome in the spotlight who is so realistic that readers will come to know and understand her and see her life as more than just an inspirational or heart-breaking story.
My rating?Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
Américas Award for Children’s & Young Adult Literature
CLASP founded the Américas Award in 1993 to encourage and commend authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.
The Carnegie Medal is awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It was established by in 1936, in memory of the great Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie.
The Christy Awards are awarded each year to recognize novels of excellence written from a Christian worldview.
Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples. It is given to African American authors and illustrator.
children and young adult blogger literacy awards
Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award
The Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award was initiated in 2000 to recognize authors, illustrators, and publishers of high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with deve
Hans Christian Anderson Award
The Hans Christian Andersen Awards is given to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. The award is the highest international recognition an author can receive.
Kate Greenaway Medal
The Kate Greenaway Medal was established in 1955, for distinguished illustration in a book for children. It is named after the popular nineteenth century artist known for her fine children’s illustrations and designs.
Middle East Book Award
The Middle East Book Award recognizes quality books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to an understanding of the Middle East and its component societies and cultures.
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award
Honors fantasy books for younger readers, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia
Newbery Medal Award
The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
Pura Belpré Award
The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. It is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino experience.
Red House Book Award
The Red House Children’s Book Award is a series of literary prizes for works of children’s literature published during the previous year in England.
Sydney Taylor Award
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.