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.