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Review of the Day: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

mockingbird 225x300 Review of the Day: Mockingbird by Kathryn ErskineMockingbird
By Kathryn Erskine
Philomel (a division of Penguin)
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-399-25264-8
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

Children’s librarians read quite a few books for kids and the result is that we tend to want to discuss them with one another. Unlucky librarians are surrounded solely by people who agree with their opinions. You’re much luckier if you happen to have a group of close folks around you who can offer alternate takes on the books you read and critique. Now, it doesn’t happen every year but once in a while children’s books (novels in particular) become divisive. Folks draw battle lines in the sand and declare that a book is either infinitely lovable and the greatest thing since sliced bread, or loathsome beyond belief, the words shaming the very paper they are printed upon. In the last few years such divisive books have included everything from The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to The Underneath. This year, 2010, one particular book has earned that honor. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine marks the author’s second foray into books for youth (the first being her young adult novel Quaking). It has garnered a great deal of praise, from such notable authors as Andrew Clements and Sharon Creech. It has been nominated, as of this review, for a National Book Award in the Young Person’s category. And I tell you truly, I’m afraid that it’s a book that just doesn’t do it for me. There are some great books coming out in 2010, but this is simply not one of them.

Caitlin doesn’t quite understand. Her older brother Devon is dead, killed tragically in a school shooting. She understands that, of course, but she doesn’t like what his death has brought with it. As a kid with Asperger’s, Caitlin has a difficult enough time figuring out the world around her as it is. Now she has glommed onto a word that seems to offer her a way out her current unhappiness: Closure. If she can find closure for Devon’s death, maybe that will help her, help her dad, help everyone who’s hurting. The only question is, what can a girl like Caitlin do to help herself and everyone else as well?

Here are some of the criticisms of Mockingbird that I personally do not agree with. 1: That children will not pick this book up. Certainly they won’t pick up the hardcover (the paperback sports a much nicer, if unfortunately trendy, image) due to the fact that it’s just a blue sky and not much else. But if they begin to read, I can see them being sufficiently intrigued to continue. 2: That this is not an authentic view of Asperger’s. I don’t agree, partially because you do have to take each child on a case by case basis.

Here are some of the criticisms of Mockingbird that I personally DO agree with: First off, there is the fact that the book is attempting too much at one time. This is true. Mockingbird wants to be three different kinds of books all at once. It would prefer to be a book about a school shooting and how a community deals with the aftermath. This is the very first thing Erskine mentions in the Author’s Note, so it appears to be the most important to her. The second thing it would like to be is a book about Asperger’s. Done. Third, it would ALSO like to be a book about a dead family member. That’s three different storylines. Three that in and of themselves would be more than enough for any middle grade novel. And I think that two of them together would have worked just fine, but by adding all three together Erskine overplays her hand. She relies on Caitlin solving not just her own personal problems, but the problems of an entire community. This rings false for the reader, and the novel’s conclusion ends up feeling rushed and pat rather than true and heartfelt.

Which brings us to my second problem. When it comes to the conclusion of any novel, the reader needs to believe in it. If everything appears too pat, you lose something along the way. In the case of Caitlin, the closure is too clean. Right off the bat you have the question of why Caitlin is so obsessed with the nature of closure, not just for herself but for everyone. Compare this book for a moment to Alan Silberberg’s, Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. Like Caitlin, the hero of that book, Milo, is searching for a kind of closure to his mother’s death. He is singularly self-obsessed, much like Caitlin, but his pain is his own, with some understanding that his dad and sister must feel somewhat similar. When Milo finds a solution to his problem (finding and seeking out objects that remind him of his mother) it inadvertently brings him and his father together again. That, I could believe. Caitlin’s belief that she needs to find closure for her entire community, though? Unfortunately, I felt manipulated by that sudden shift in plotting. It seemed necessary for the story for Caitlin to help her community come to terms with her brother’s death, but I didn’t believe for a moment that Caitlin the character would care about others in this manner. She goes from an inability to feel empathy one moment to becoming the most empathetic girl in the whole wide world the next. I didn’t buy it.

The writing itself for the most part wasn’t problematic. However, there were little moments when I found it getting a touch cutesy. After hearing Mrs. Brook tell her that she is convinced that Caitlin can learn empathy, our heroine slips off her shoes and touches her toes to the floor. “I pull my feet off of the floor and shove them back into my sneakers. At least I tried dipping my toe in empathy.” That’s a fair example of a couple points in the story where the text becomes a little too on the nose to feel real. It doesn’t happen often, but there are moments.

The Asperger’s I do not question because that is tricky territory. I do not have a child with Asperger’s and Ms. Erskine does. However, this raises a fairly interesting point in and of itself. When Cynthia Lord wrote the Newbery Honor winning book Rules she made her narrator not an autistic boy, but rather his put upon older sister. This was remarkably clever of her. Then, when you get to the end of the book, the reader finds out via the bookflap that the author has an autistic son of her own. The book is therefore lent a kind of authenticity through this admission. As I read Mockingbird however, I found myself wondering if the author had any personal connection or knowledge of Asperger’s that could lend the book similar authenticity. I read the bookflap and the Author’s Note and came up with nothing. Nada. It was only through the grapevine that I heard the rumor that Ms. Erskine has a daughter of her own with Asperger’s. Now why on earth would the book wish to hide this fact? By the time I reached the end I wanted to believe that the writer had some knowledge of the subject, but instead of including a list of useful sources, or even a website kids can check, the Author’s Note speaks instead about the Virginia Tech shootings. A harrowing incident to be sure, but why avoid mentioning that someone you love has a connection to your main character? It made for a very strange gap.

Finally, there is Caitlin’s voice. It drove me absolutely insane. Some have argued that this is a good thing. If Caitlin’s voice annoys you then the author must be doing something right in creating a character that doesn’t fall into the usual middle grade pattern of protagonists. She is unique. I note this theory, but I don’t agree with it. My annoyance isn’t necessarily who Caitlin is, but rather the fact that I never for one moment believe that I’m listening to a girl. Instead, for much of this book I felt like I was reading an adult woman putting herself into the head of a girl like Caitlin. How else to explain the off-putting “humorous” moments when Caitlin fails to understand a word or term? We have been assured that she reads at an adult level. Certainly her vocabulary should be through the roof, and yet she stumbles when she hits words as simple as “closure” and “fundraiser” (turning it into the strangely out-of-character “fun raiser”). It seems that Caitlin is only as smart as the plot allows her to be. Otherwise, she’s adorably out-of-place, and that manipulation rang false.

Many folks have found themselves comparing this book to a fellow 2010 release, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Like Mockingbird, Ms. Draper’s book is a first person narrative of a girl dealing with the world around her. In Draper’s story the main character has cerebral palsy, just as Ms. Draper’s daughter does (and just as that book ALSO fails to mention anywhere). The difference for me lies in the characters. What I have found, though, is that many people dislike these books for similar reasons. Some people find Mockingbird charming and Out of My Mind manipulative. Others feel it’s the other way around. Personally, I think that Draper’s book is the better of the two, though Ms. Erskine is an excellent writer. I’m certain that in the future she will produce books that I will like to read. Unfortunately, in the case of Mockingbird the problems outweigh the positives. The book doesn’t ring true for me, even if the writer is talented. Hopefully in the future we’ll see more of her work but for now I’ll be recommending books like Out of My Mind and Milo over others like Mockingbird.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Follow-Up: Think I’m entirely off my rocker (particularly when it comes to that whole Author’s Note suggestion)?  Well, you’re not alone.  See what 40+ commenters had to say on the subject in the follow-up post How Much is an Author Obligated to Say?

Misc: For further discussion of this book, consider Jonathan Hunt’s take and the ensuing (and very civilized) comments over at Heavy Medals.

share save 171 16 Review of the Day: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. B-burg says:

    Is it really fair to criticize an author of fiction for not providing personal information in her bio? Maybe she felt it would be in poor taste to wave around her daughter’s illness as a proof of authenticity. Maybe she wanted to protect her daughter’s privacy.

    As someone who was much closer to the Tech shootings, I felt uncomfortable hearing how somebody who lived several hours away and didn’t know anybody who died was so “close” to the events that she had to write a book–uncomfortable enough that I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. Frankly, I wish she would have kept that to herself as well.

    In my opinion, the “authenticity” of a work of fiction should come from the words inside the book, not the credentials at the end.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      At the same time, when someone’s writing about autism or Asperger’s, I like to know that they’re not just making stuff up. These are very hip subjects in children’s literature right now with everything from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to The London Eye Mystery to Marcelo in the Real World to Anything But Typical (etc.) coming out. So I like it when I know that the writer has made a personal connection to the topic rather than said to themselves “Gee, this is the condition to write about right now . . . I’ll just come up with a voice off the top of my head and all will be well.” It’s also not as if Erskine hasn’t mentioned her daughter in interviews. So privacy is not entirely the question here.

      The real reason I needed it, of course, was the difficulty I had in believing in Caitlin’s voice. Since the authenticity was lacking in the text (probably because it was first person), I needed it elsewhere. Hence the critique.

  2. Kate Coombs says:

    While I’m sure each child is a unique case, I work with a teenage boy who has either (high-functioning) autism or Asberger’s, and the idea that he might reach so far out of his own little world as to try to solve a community’s problems is unfathomable. I’m doing good to get him to take an interest in any kind of school work, let alone the world outside his door and the people in it. He’s a pleasant boy, but his world is very tightly limited by his condition.

    Interesting review!

  3. Tandy says:

    Kate,

    My own child with Asperger’s is desperate to be a part of the world but hasn’t got the social skills to navigate it. As you say, each child is different.

  4. Angela K. says:

    I agree that the author could have at least listed some resources for further information at the end of the book. Caitlin’s voice also irritated me as well. The chest seemed to be a forced element of the plot line. It was brought up again and again, so you knew the author was going to do something with it, but what ended up happening was not convincing at all. Even if she didn’t have Asberger’s, why would Caitlin donate the chest to the school? What would the school even do with the chest? I would have preferred a touching moment with her dad where they came to some sort of peace together about what happened. The author mentions that the community has pain that needs to be healed, but we don’t really see the pain on a community level. The pain of Caitlin’s dad does seem real, though, and the author makes quite an effort to develop the Dad’s pain. It just would have been better if Caitlin and her dad work together on the chest – or another project entirely – a scrapbook composed entirely of Devon’s pictures, etc. – and come to healing together.

  5. Kathy J says:

    As I read the ending, she finished her brother’s Eagle Scout project because she understood one meaning of closure to be “bringing a project to closure” and thought immediately of his chest. The fact that it brought some healing to the community was sort of a by-product. I agree that Caitlin’s voice is sometimes inconsistent, but could that have been the Asperger’s talking? I’ve worked with kids with Asperger’s and sometimes they are super-intelligent and sometimes very naive for their age. I think MILO (which i loved) is easier to relate to because he’s a typical if quirky kid — and, you’re right, the author is trying to do less. I also enjoyed OUT OF MY MIND, despite the melodrama, but it is has really had a profound effect on kids who have read it and I can’t keep it on the shelves!

  6. John Speno says:

    Off topic, but of course this reminds me of the Walter Tevis book of the same name.
    http://www.waltertevis.com/#mockingbird

  7. You know, I never read it as “trying to do three things at once,” although perhaps the author’s note indicates that I SHOULD have. I kind of saw the school-shooting-healing-community aspect of it as a side thing if anything. I would say this book is about A Person Who Has Trouble With Emotions In The First Place Attempting To Deal With Grief. It’s not ABOUT school shootings. It’s not ABOUT Aspergers. It’s about Grief, through the viewpoint of someone who has difficulty understanding emotions to begin with. Much more focused looked at that way. So I never had a problem with that.

    I also don’t have a problem with Caitlyn apparently showing empathy for the whole community or whatever. The way I read it was that she was interested in other people finding Closure mostly because she was trying to figure out what it MEANT, to find it for herself. She was projecting a lot of her own feelings. Not that the people she was projecting on didn’t also need some closure. Besideswhich, I think she just really needed a sense of normalcy again, and with everyone Not Acting Like Themselves, she wanted them to find Closure just so they’d be comfortable for her to be around again!

    For my own Commenter’s Note, I suppose I should add that I a) dealt with a sibling’s death as a child, and b) have a brother with high-functioning autism, and c) never had a personal connection to a school shooting, so all these things probably colored my reading as much as they might color an author’s writing.

    I really enjoyed this book, actually. For all the Newbery Buzz-getting books I’ve read so far, I think I actually liked this best. But at the same time that’s not because I thought it was a GREAT, perfectly-crafted, Newbery-worthy book. Just I actually had an emotional reaction to it for once. But tearjerkers do that to you.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Ah! That reminds me. The random capitalization of letters was another point that’s been getting a bit of discussion. To me, it seemed out of character for someone so in love with words to ascribe capitalized letters to important terms. Forgot to mention that.

  8. I reviewed the audio, and I think it works as a class read. I think that stopping and starting the text so that a class can talk about what Caitlyn ‘gets’ and doesn’t ‘get’ and how everyone has blind spots like that is a useful exploration of empathy, and even language.

    Hard not to agree with the “It’s three, three, three mints in one!” criticism though. School shooting? Dead brother? Doesn’t Caitlyn have enough to figure out without all that?

  9. Mark Flowers says:

    Fascinating – I literally just finished this novel last night, and had put my 5-star stamp on Goodreads seconds earlier when I saw your review. It convinced me that I had been a bit taken in (enough to downgrade to 4 stars) but I still think this book has a lot going for it.

    1) Doing 3 things at once. You actually forgot a 4th one, which is the way it was trying to be an intertextual companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. But personally, I just can’t see this as a bad thing. I thought the three ideas all flowed into each other well, especially since the death of a family member and the school shooting issues were interrelated.

    2) The closure for the community. I agree with you that the conclusion was a bit rushed, and strange. I would absolutely have preferred for the book to end with Caitlyn and her father finding closure with the chest and just leaving it at that. But, the “whole community” thing was about 5 pages out of 220, and while I didn’t care for it, I didn’t think it ruined the rest of the book for me.

    3) Capital letters. This is personal thing for me, but I love Random Capital Letters. Plus, it reminds me of Winnie the Pooh. And if anyone has anything against the capital letters in Winnie the Pooh, them’s fighting words for me. Plus, didn’t Caitlyn specifically say that she thought that “important words” should be capitalized? Maybe I remember that wrong.

    The question of Asperger’s being the flavor-of-the-month illness to write about is a vexing one. Certainly, it is an important topic (especially to friends and family of those on the spectrum) and I applaud the various writers who have grappled with it for getting it out there in a mature way. On the other hand, my personal concern is with what people with Asperger’s themselves think of these books, and whether they feel they are being accurately portrayed. (I have an email out to a friend who teaches kids with Asperger’s – let you know if I get an answer to that one).

    Anyone, thanks for the review – very thought provoking.

  10. kd says:

    The question for me is not whether it’s “three, three, three mints in one” too many, but more whether or not if you take a child who has Asperger’s and put them in those situations, if the response that Caitlyn has seems logical, or probable, or even possible. I don’t see MOCKINGBIRD as a book that’s trying to do too much. Okay, so not every Aspergers kid has to deal with a school shooting, but they are having to deal with closure and letting go and navigating difficult relationships with people all around them every day, whatever the particulars of their situations. And let us be aware, some of their situations are just as tragic as school shootings. NO story is our own particular story and yet we find points of connection that resonate with us anyway. We believe it because we recognize it in our hearts. If this book didn’t resonate with you, then for whatever reason (your preconceived notions, your personal experience, etc) it is not a story that is supposed to resonate for you.

    Caitlyn is seeing the world through her own eyes and at the most, through the eyes of her father. That is very possibly the extent of her empathy. But when she sees that her father is experiencing closure and that it leads to the community at large experiencing closure in some ways, she catches a glimpse into empathy. She might not feel it the next time around, but for that one night she is tuned in to what is happening around her. Maybe I take a book’s characters to heart a little too strongly, but holy crow, let the girl have her day. When one of my students finally gets a little piece of understanding about something they’ve been struggling with, I don’t tear them down and say they didn’t really get the whole of it. We celebrate! I don’t think the author was trying to imply that Caitlyn had mastered the whole of empathy once and for all. The resolution didn’t tie up *that* neatly. I think she was trying to say, “This is a process and look! Caitlyn is gaining experience.” Just like all of us.

  11. kd says:

    And gah! I spelled Caitlin wrong because I was relying on memory with my copy of the book back in our school library!. :(

  12. Gregory K. says:

    There’s a huge difference between listing resources or sources and publicly creating a mythology for your own child. Saying “my son is 6 feet tall” is a clear thing. Saying “my child has Asperger’s” creates hundreds of different images in hundreds of different people’s minds. Very different and carries with it a lot of impact. And what if said child would rather not be identified and singled out like that? Why should a book reader want them to be? As to authenticity… hey, Shakespeare wasn’t a Danish prince, was he? Do you buy Hamlet as a good story? The devil of authenticity is in the details.

    I think what’s interesting is that we all bring our own perceptions to what we read. What I’ve seen is that Asperger kids with huge vocabularies will constantly run into words they don’t know… or words they can’t understand because they experience the world completely differently than those without Asperger’s. Closure as an emotional concept would be one that they could’ve read 100 times and still not know. So what seems unauthentic to you could very truly BE authentic… yet you’ve brought your bias of what “should” happen to play. Which we all do all the time and, in a vicious circle, is also one reason why kids with any sort of difference from the norm struggle so much: we invalidate what they’re going through by using ourselves and our experiences as baselines for what they should be like.

    Now, none of the above means that authenticity creates a good read or works effectively for telling a specific story. That’s a whole different kettle of fish, indeed! And since I haven’t read Mockingbird, I have no further comment :-)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Actually, I’ve a post that sort of addresses this ah-brewing for tomorrow, Greg. Good points!

  13. I’ve been a MOCKINBIRD fan from day one, mainly because I *do* think Erskine nailed the Aspergian voice, as well as the reactions of the adults around Caitlin (and I’m speaking as someone who has worked w/ autistic kids and may be borderline Aspergian). I think I might do a re-read to look at storytelling and structure a little more closely.

  14. Tandy says:

    This interview with Ms. Erskine addresses some things about research and the capitalization of letters, among other things.

    http://sixboxesofbooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/mockingbird-by-kathryn-erskine.html

  15. Hey, that’s my interview! :-) Also, I apparently can’t spell (see above comment).

  16. Wantstobeawriter says:

    I’m reading this book now.My copy is one with a young brown haired girl whose hair is in a braid and with a simple green tee,resting her head in her hands on a tree by scholastic. Just to let you know there are different versions. :)