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Posts Tagged ‘middle school shootings

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.

How would you rate this book?

When preparing interviews, I start by staring blankly at the computer screen and wondering what questions can I ask that are new. Once I start typing down ideas, I quickly face the opposite dilemma. Suddenly I have far too many questions! With Kathryn Erskine, I divided my questions into three parts, with a few to each part, but still ended up with far more than was probably polite to send. Thanks to Erskine for graciously answering the questions of an overeager interviewer!


On your bio, you list many different places where you have roots: the Netherlands, Israel, South Africa, and Scotland.

Allison: What are some unique foods you ate as a child? Which were your favorite? What are some you still can’t stand?

Kathryn: Biltong (like beef jerky), haggis (various organ meats in a sheep’s stomach), seal flipper pie, cod tongue, and probably others I’m forgetting.  Really, there’s no food I can’t stand.  I did get tired of plain cod, though, and my two best friends and I would invite each other over for dinner at whoever’s house was NOT serving cod — until our mothers’ wised up and all started serving cod on the same nights!

Allison: You must have experienced quite a variety of cultural traditions. What were your favorite, and have you kept any?

Kathryn: After living in South Africa and Scotland, Christmas is very Anglophile.  We have crackers (poppers with toys, hats and jokes inside) –and you must wear the silly paper hat all during Christmas dinner — and Christmas pudding (like a spice cake with raisins) complete with rum so we can light it on fire.  Often there’s a prize hidden in the pudding.  I still sing the British version of carols because I can’t get them out of my head, and because they’re so beautiful.

Allison: How did growing up in different countries influence who you are today?

Kathryn: It has taught me to look at things from different perspectives and to always ask why — what’s the story behind the story?  It opened my eyes to different ways of doing things and to this day I love traveling and learning about different cultures.  I also want to share that with my kids, and with those read my books.

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


When I read the description of Mockingbird, I knew I had to read it because it was about a girl with Asperger’s. (The next book of yours I want to read is The Absolute Value of Mike.) As a special education teacher, I am interested in children’s books that feature kids with special needs.

Allison: Your book is written from the viewpoint of a girl who has Asperger’s. Although you are the mother of a child who has Asperger’s, I still think it’s remarkable that you were able to make the leap to seeing the world through her eyes. How easy or difficult was this for you?

Kathryn: I always work hard at getting into character — it’s one of the many fun parts of writing.  I research and experience what my character does (even down to sticking my head under the sofa cushions!) so I can try to relay that authentically on the page.  After all the research, including listening to the music my character might listen to, eating and drinking what they do, wearing what they wear, it’s very easy to write them.

Allison: You indicated in one interview that you like writing most about tolerance and understanding. You’ve written about racism, the meaning of family, Asperger’s, and most recently learning disabilities. Do you draw on experience or research for these topics?

Kathryn: Both.  I’ve lived through a lot of things, good and bad, and I use my experiences and emotions in my writing.  But I don’t think that’s enough, because that’s just one person’s experience, so I also research a lot to try get it right.  That includes reading, observing, interviewing, traveling, even watching movies.

Allison: Do children with special needs find enough role models in the books they read? Are writers and publishers doing right by children with special needs?

Kathryn: I think there are more and more books about kids with special needs, which is great to see.  Differences are no longer being ignored so we’re even getting stories about transgender issues and mental illness, all of which is very helpful for young readers.

Allison: Do you have any advice for the peers of children with Asperger’s? Do you have any advice for teachers who have students with Asperger’s?

Kathyrn: Two things:  1) try to be as understanding as possible, and 2) be as direct, even blunt, as you can, because the clearer you are, the more likely the person with Asperger’s will understand you.

Newfoundland Flag

Newfoundland Flag (Photo credit: Product of Newfoundland)


When I saw that you’d lived in my home province of Newfoundland and were planning to set your next novel there, I knew I had to interview you.

Allison: Where in Newfoundland have you been, and what prompted you to go there?

Kathryn: I lived in St. John’s for three years as a teenager because my father was in the U.S. Foreign Service.  I volunteered at the Janeway (children’s hospital), biked around Quidi Vidi lake, and loved being able to walk to some of my favorite shops near the harbor in downtown St. John’s.  I was mostly on the Avalon Peninsula but did go to Terra Nova National Park, which is gorgeous.

Allison: What do you like about Newfoundland?

Kathryn: I like the wild beauty of the land and the sea, and the friendliness of the people!

Allison: You also mention mummers. Have you seen any in person? (I  must admit that I have not, but wish I had.) Have you encountered any other Newfie traditions, such as Screech-ins?

Kathryn: I haven’t technically seen mummers because they weren’t dressed up, just people going from house to house singing carols, which I love.  And I haven’t been Screeched in because I don’t think I could handle much Screech at all — not without screeching, anyway!

Allison: What can you tell us about your upcoming novel? Why did you decide to have it take place in Newfoundland?

Kathryn: Well, for one thing, it gives me another reason to go back and visit!  Also, the outports and the people have distinct personalities and an appealing image, so I’m writing about a disgruntled American who escapes there, although he finds that his image of the place isn’t exactly what he thought.  I don’t want to say too much more or I may give things away.  😮

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine is about ten-year-old Caitlyn who has Aspergers. If that isn’t enough, Caitlin also has to deal with the shooting of her brother. I’ll post my review of Mockingbird on Saturday.

Kathryn Erskine grew up mostly overseas, living in five different places, which you can read about in her bio. One of those places is Newfoundland! Find out more in my interview with Erskine. I’ll post it on Friday.

Save the dates: May 11-12!

For authors, it’s almost an anomaly if they don’t grow up bookworms. What’s different about each author is the books they picked as favorites. Erskine loved realistic fiction adventure which for her, since she grew up in British type countries, were Enid Blyton (Fabulous Five series) and Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons series). Yet she also underwent phases: adventures, mysteries, series, biographies, encyclopedias, and nonfiction on specific topics. Another commonality in authors is that they often grow up reading everything and anything. For Erskine, this included reading at age eight, my husband’s favorite book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.


In one of my childhood journal entries, I listed all the different types of careers I might want to pursue when an adult. Similarly, although Erskine always enjoyed writing, she grew up wanting to be a number of different things including anthropologist, archaeologist, social worker, or Foreign Service worker. Actually, when asked in a Question and Answer for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to share a little known fact about her life, Erskine revealed that she had almost joined the Foreign Service. At the time she took their series of exams, she was the youngest to pass and would have been a prime candidate for Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.

Instead of pursuing any of the above careers, Erskine became a lawyer. Writing, she decided could wait until she retired. However, faced with the frailty of life, people often rethink their choices. When her mom died, Erskine realized that if there’s something you want to do in your life, you should do it. You never know what might happen. What dreams have you yet to pursue?


What I appreciate about Kathryn Erskine is that she picks topics apart from the norm. In the broadest sense, tolerance and understanding are themes which runs through her books. In a narrower sense, her first book Ibhubesi The Lion is about apartheid, Quaking is about the adoption and pacifism, Mockingbird is about Aspergers and about school shootings, and The Absolute Value of Mike is about learning disabilities. At On Beyond Words and Pictures, Erskine shares that she chooses a project about which she feels strongly about and so has something to say about it. Eventually, I hope to review the rest of her books. I suspect I’ll also follow her as an author. It comes as good news then that apparently she has a dozen partially written manuscripts and dozens more in note form.

It also comes as little surprise that Erskine advises new writers to experiment and not worry about what others say. She also recommended the tried and true advice of write and read! The more one writes, the better one becomes. The more one reads, the more styles one sees and that frees one to develop a unique one.

Incidentally, when asked in an interview by Madelyn Rosenberg what she found easiest about writing, Erskine said dialog. Although apparently the character voices in her head can also go on and on until off track. That’s the downside to her gift.

Although I think her novels could be enjoyed by intermediate readers, teenagers are her target age. She feel adolescence is a great age. Increased awareness brings on heightened expectations. Developing friendship leads to peer pressures. New liberties get saddled with adult worries. In a Question and Answer for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Erskine stated that she hopes her books give “some comfort, hope, and maybe a few laughs too.”


To wrap up my week of teasers, I want to include answers to three nifty interview questions that I didn’t think to ask. All of these appear at The Secret DMS Files of Fairday Morrow.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Spoken like a true traveler, Erskine lists many places where she’d love to live. At the moment though, she’s happy enough living in Virginia.

What is your favorite song? Like me, Erskine likes songs dependent on her mood. Yet she does have one outstanding favorite, an old song, PataPata, which she remembers from living in Africa as a child. Listening to it makes her want to dance. And apparently she does, even if she’s driving in the car.

What is your secret talent? This question reminds me of a scene from Breakfast Club—the one where Molly Ringwald’s character reveals that her special talent is putting on lipstick with her breasts. 🙂 As for Erskine, she lists Sudoka and SET (a pattern matching game), along with taking an assortment of odd ingredients and coming up with a pretty decent meal.

How would you answer the above questions? Me, I love my home province best and would live there in a heartbeat. I’ve also enjoyed Arizona and the New England area. The song Footloose always makes at least my feet tap. As for a secret talent, I’ll have to think about that one.

On Saturday I’ll post my review of her current book Mockingbird. It’s hard to not feel envious that Erskine apparently took only six weeks to write the guts of it. Yet I suppose this is what many aspiring authors these days attempt during National Writing Writing Month. Obviously, it took a lot longer for Erskine to trim and shape Mockingbird into its current form.

Two situations inspired Mockingbird. Because her daughter has Aspergers Syndrome, Erskine wanted to write a book from that perspective. While writing Mockingbird, the shootings occurred at Virginia Tech. In struggling to figure out how to explain the tragedy to her children, Erskine wondered how a child with Asperger’s Syndrome would understand or cope with this type of event. That’s when she decided to open Mockingbird after Caitlin had lost her brother in a similar event.

To learn more about the writing of Mockingbird, read:
Publishers Weekly Q&A with Kathryn Erskine
Summit Series for Families Interview with Kathyrn Erskine

To learn more about Asperger’s Syndrome, check out the books and sites listed on Erksine’s site: Research for Mockingbird

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