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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Mockingbird

Oh, dear.  I have problems with this one.  Big problems.  Little problems.  Medium-sized problems.  I even have problems with my problems.

THE LITTLE PROBLEM Erksine Mockingbird

An Eagle Scout project is (a) a service project and (b) a leadership project.  Which means that an Eagle Scout candidate must mobilize a group of people (most likely other Scouts in his troop, but also other community members) to perform an act of service.  Making Mission-style furniture just doesn’t cut it, neither teaching other Scouts how to make it nor working with Dad on the weekends.  The project has to be approved before undertaken, and this one never would have made it off the ground (says Jonathan, the Eagle Scout).  It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but Caitlin’s focus shouldn’t have been on finishing the chest as much as it should have been on providing leadership on a service project.

THE BIG PROBLEM

The voice drives me absolutely crazy.  Now I could criticize it on two fronts.  First, I could say that based on my knowledge of people with autism and/or Asperger’s symptom that it seems inauthentic.  I’m going to leave this point to people who have more experience with the autism spectrum than I do–not that I don’t have any, mind you; I’ve had plenty of students in my classroom and library.   (Similarly, some people might object to the portrayal of tragic school violence.)  In both objections we are measuring verity, whether the reality of the novel matches that of the real world.

My second line of criticism is to examine whether the voice has an internal logic and consistency throughout the narrative, and this is where I take issue with this book.  On the one hand, our narrator uses several conventions of literary fiction, namely (a) first person present tense narrative and (b) dialogue written in italics rather than with quotation marks.  On the other hand, she (a) randomly capitalizes letters and entire words and (b) despite having an off-the-chart reading ability she has a limited vocabulary (not knowing words like finesse, closure, fundraiser, and quarter-cut oak).  I find this dichotomy extremely jarring.

On page 134 and 135, Caitlin displays her mastery of idiomatic speech: When people say it’s raining cats and dogs it isn’t really.  That just means it’s raining a lot.  But it can rain frogs if they get sucked up in a storm and they plop down on top of your head.  Also snow can be pink if red dirt dissolves in water that evaporates and–

Now in this quote she’s actually speaking aloud, but Caitlin frequently explains the obvious inside her thoughts, things most narrators take for granted.  While it does create the effect of a distinct autistic voice with a touch of whimsy and bemusement, it repeatedly draws my attention to the voice and the audience.  Is this an internal monologue, a story being relayed in a representational fashion, without regard to audience (meaning the audience is eavesdropping on the narrator’s thoughts, speech, and actions)?  I don’t think so.  Or is this story consciously being told to an audience, a presentational format, and if so, what kind of assumptions does Caitlin make about her audience (i.e. that they don’t know what it’s raining cats and dogs means, that they are stupid)?  See, I don’t think this either.  I don’t know that Caitlin has an awareness of her audience.  So the presentational voice is meant to have a representational effect. The tension and disconnect between the two makes it hard for me to fall under its spell. So the effect falls flat, seeming more like an artificial construction than an authentic voice.

THE MEDIUM-SIZED PROBLEM

I read a lot.  Novels with disabled characters.  Novels with autistic characters.  Novels with autistic narrators.  Novels with grieving children: grieving a father, a mother, a brother, a friend.  Novels with distinct voices.  Novels with it all.  No matter which angle I look at this novel, it just seems average to me, like I can name a handful of better books.  For example, I find the autistic narrators in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT IN THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, and MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD to be more successful than MOCKINGBIRD–perhaps not perfect, but better than MOCKINGBIRD.  Now I’d never be able to discuss those at the Newbery table, but it still doesn’t help me feel better about MOCKINGBIRD’s distinguished qualities.  (And then, too, some people have mentioned OUT OF MY MIND as a better book in a similar vein.)  I could go on, but I won’t.  The point is that I personally compare MOCKINGBIRD to the sum total of my reading experiences and find it lacking.  Now other people will have an entirely different frame of reference because they have different reading experiences (and different life experiences), and I acknowledge that.  Clearly, the National Book Award judges saw something special.

THE PROBLEM WITH PROBLEMS

No book is perfect; no book without problems.  Which problems are worth taking seriously–and which should we dismiss?  I’ve described the Eagle Scout project as a little problem; Nina described the geography in ONE CRAZY SUMMER as a little problem.  But are they?  What about when my little problem (Kickapoo Indian princess, anyone?) becomes somebody else’s big problem?  Do our favorite books only have little problems, while our least favorite books have big problems?  Is it entirely subjective?  Can we find a measure of objectivity?  Or is this whole thing just one big patch of quicksand?

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Bird says:

    I agree with everything you have said, Jonathan. Every last word. Except maybe the Eagle Scout project problem as I was a Girl Scout once and we were never allowed to make anything cooler than a batch of brownies so my experience there is nil. For me, I felt the book was trying to do too much and spread itself far too thin. It’s an autism book, a school shooting book, and a dead brother book all at once. Any one of those three elements would have been sufficient, but combining them with that particular voice caused me no end of irritation.

  2. Wendy says:

    Ha! I just complained about the Eagle Scout issue in my own Goodreads review of this book. I wondered at first, in fact, whether Devon also had special needs and was being allowed to do a simpler project. (Of course, no one else would jump to that conclusion without an Inner Knowledge of Scouting.) I think, because the Eagle Scout project is such a big part of the novel, it’s a much bigger problem than Nina’s geography problem. The odd thing is that it only lessens Devon’s character. If the author had had him doing a proper project, and made him three years older–well, why not?

    I also had the same issue with “wait, she’s supposed to have an adult reading level?”. No issue with her not knowing “quarter cut oak”; I’d never heard the term before, and even well-read kids (though Caitlin doesn’t read all that much) make things up from context clues. I thought maybe the author was just thinking of reading fluency, not comprehension (sigh). It didn’t make any sense to me that someone who was such a mega-advanced reader wouldn’t know the conventions of punctuation and grammar, but apparently that was all taken from Erskine’s own daughter who has Asperger’s. But all-in-all, something just didn’t add up for me there.

    Which problems are big enough to worry about? My sense is that if a book is good enough on most of the Newbery criteria, then it’s worth worrying about and arguing over the problems. (Though we spent a lot of time on it, I never thought A Season of Gifts was really good enough, in the field we had last year, for the racism problems to be worth worrying about–Newbery-wise, that is. On the other hand, Calpurnia Tate–yes, it was worth talking about IMO. Even if I don’t have a particular problem with a book, I find it worth discussing others’ problems, no matter how small. If the book is that good.)

  3. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    I am a bit amused at the Eagle Scout stuff, only because sometimes when I bring up legal issues not quite working in J/YA books, I am told I am being too picky and artistic license etc.

  4. I loved Mockingbird on a personal I-loved-this-book level– in fact of all the books that have been getting serious Newbery buzz, I think it’s the one I loved most (of what I’ve read). But even as I was reading it I realized it was hard to look at objectively– such a TEARJERKER! But so can’t-HELP-being-a-tearjerker! I mean, the whole concept of “This is a book about grief as told by a character who has trouble making sense of emotions!” is just flat-out telling you this is going to be an emotional book! But that doesn’t mean anything distinguishing-wise, because crappy made-for-TV movies are tearjerkers, too. I think it IS distinguished in that it does Tearjerker well– the emotion never seems forced. I do agree that I thought there was something funny about her being apparently so advanced and yet sometimes being limited by vocabulary. I don’t know anything about Eagle Scout projects. But it was like, this was one of those times I’m glad I’m not on the Newbery Committee. It is too hard to separate “I liked it” from “It did everything well.”

  5. Kiera says:

    I too work with children with autism and SPD’s, although they are usually much younger than Caitlin. So, for me, the seeming inconsistency with that character being unusually smart at some things but maddeningly obtuse about others was not problematic. That is typical for many children with Aspergers.

    But I’m wholly on the page with Jonathan regarding the disconnect between the presentational voice taking on a representational effect. It felt manipulated for the benefit of the reader rather than an organic product of Caitlin’s inner process.

    I agree with Betsy as well- there is just SO much going on. It reminds me a bit of HURT GO HAPPY- another book that I loved, but just had trouble reconciling all of the various things packed into it. They both feel like 2 or 3 books jammed into one.

    Regarding the Eagle Scout project, all I could think about was the book The Radioactive Boy Scout. Seems Devon’s project was a tad unambitious. ;-)

  6. Mr. H says:

    Problems with Problems . . . I hope these complaints are carried evenly throughout discussions of other texts . . .

    “Susan” brought up some great issues with ONE CRAZY SUMMER that I feel are equally as problematic. She said:

    “Well, eleven year old children take on parental roles only when there is a vacuum, and there is no such void in this family. Yes, the mother has abandoned them, but the girls have a father who loves them, is sane and there for them. They have a grandmother, ditto, ditto. If the father had been off in the army instead of the uncle, or an alcoholic and the grandmother had been senile or just mean, then the plot line would have made some sense, but as it was…..no.”

    Yet I feel like no one wants to do anything but praise it. I hope people give her concern weight during rereads and/or discussions surrounding ONE CRAZY SUMMER.

  7. I really enjoyed Mockingbird, but my big problem with the book was age appropriateness. We decided to catalog Mockingbird as YA in our school library, because of the mature subject matter surrounding a school shooting and brother who was murdered in one. I found the particular scene where Caitlin watches the news with her father and the school shooter grins and that camera and gives a thumbs up and then the father goes and throws up particularly unsettling. I can’t understand why it has been consistently reviewed as ages 9-12. I think this book should be 6th grade and up. With that said, I think for a 6th grader or older that this book touches on interesting subject matter and was a good read.

  8. Wendy says:

    We could start a list of books that are frequently read by elementary schoolers that have equally unsettling scenes and plots, if anyone is really interested. We could start with, say, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and then slide on over to A Little Princess, with a good long stop at The Underneath…

    In any case, books recommended for kids sixth grade and up are completely eligible for the Newbery, so I don’t know what difference it makes.

  9. Ms. Yingling says:

    Finally, a sensible voice. My problem with this was that I can’t see students wanting to read it. It is more the sort of thing that a language arts teacher assigns, which is probably why it is nominated for an award. Biggest problem– it is not a criterion for most children’s book awards that the books actually appeal to children!

  10. Mr. H says:

    Ms Yingling says: “Biggest problem– it is not a criterion for most children’s book awards that the books actually appeal to children!”

    But in a way, isn’t it? Or at least it should be. I don’t think it’s always interpreted as such, but I think it should go without saying that if a children’s book is to be “distinguished” it better appeal to children, not just adults. And despite what Jonathan said earlier in another thread, in my opinion, it better be able to appeal to lots of children, not just 1 in a million.

    Because seriously, these books are eligible for the Newbery Medal. The authors are supposedly writing them for kids. So if the book doesn’t appeal to kids, I see no reason it shouldn’t be factored in somehow, someway. I’m not saying DIARY OF A WIMPY KID and PERCY JACKSON need to win the medal every year but if MOCKINGBIRD truly is the most “distinguished” contribution to American literature for children this year, then it better appeal to lots of kids. Otherwise, if Erskine missed the mark, and her work that was written for children doesn’t appeal to children, how can we necessarily call it “distinguished”?

  11. Wendy says:

    On that I disagree. While many of us can probably provide anecdotal evidence, for instance, that my ten-year-old niece devoured it in one sitting, it’s probably more useful to compare this to other, similar books that are popular with children. I think the simple, friendly voice, the slight air of mystery in the first chapter or two, the underdog aspect, the school shooting theme itself, and the school setting would be very interesting to many kids. Somehow, probably because of Caitlin’s naivete, the book doesn’t feel mired in gloom to me the way some juvenile problem novels are. Not that there aren’t plenty of readers who want to wallow in gloom. While I don’t think this is a particularly great book, I think it’s a book that will appeal to both avid readers and to many kids who don’t read often.

  12. Mr. H says:

    Sorry, I was only meant to use MOCKINGBIRD as an example. Maybe it didn’t come out that way. My rant was meant to address children appeal factoring in to Newbery discussion in some way.

  13. Joyce says:

    I have a son with Asperger’s. But as they say, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. Jonathan, the books you mention in your post as well as ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL portray boys with Asperger’s. Girls with Asperger’s do present differently. I thought the author did a great job in portraying a window into Asperger’s. Because I read that the author modeled Caitlin after her daughter, I personally would like to give the author a wide berth, although it occurred to me that she may have created Caitlin from a composite of different behaviors at different ages and stages of her daughter.

    If the voice drives you crazy, maybe it is meant to. I know that communication with my son drives me crazy. He scored 800 on the Verbal portion of the SAT, yet speaks in as few words as possible. He uses silly invented words to obfuscate. He also speaks in code. He refuses to elaborate when asked, because he thinks I should know what he means. (He does have many talents and is gainfully employed in the computer industry where I am certain he communicates with animation and confidence. He also benefits from a close relationship with his younger sister who takes him shopping for non dorky clothes and can talk him into things the rest of his can’t. Loved and appreciated the portrayal of the sibling bond in the book.)

    I dislike the word “closure” in general. In this book, Caitlin latches on to the word and the use of that word propels the plot forward to its neat and tidy ending. The neat and tidy ending, with the Eagle Scout chest do not ring true for me. On p 66, Caitlin first hears the word closure from the TV announcer as in, “We’ll hear more about this story later but isn’t it good that we now have closure?” However insensitive or callous the media, I don’t think Caitlin would have heard the word closure in response to the defendant having his preliminary hearing.

    In my small town a few years ago, a 9th grader was killed in a violent way by a classmate at school. The event turned my town upside down and inside out. I have a recollection of the TV announcers saying, this is a town which is looking for ANSWERS. A friend of mine who was the volunteer moderator of the online high school parent forum, left her part time job at the library because moderating the forum in the wake of this tragic event became a full time job. Just this year, the defendant came to trial. Jurors walked through the high school…..

    Just had this thought: Perhaps the author will write a sequel. In a few years, Caitlin’s brother ‘s killer would come to trial. Would Caitlin revise her concept of closure in those interim years and as she becomes an adolescent? I would want to read that book.

  14. Mr. H,

    I would guess every Newbery Committee hopes to select a book that will “….appeal to lots of children, not just 1 in a million,” But the criteria are strict and child popularity is emphatically not one of them. Child appeal is. And when we complain about the books only appealing to a small number of kids we then marginalize those readers. As long as they are clearly for children, it doesn’t matter how many children.

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mr. H–

    If adult book awards (Pulitzer, Nobel) miss their mark, does that make them less distinguished? I don’t think so. They may not be relevant to the pleasure reading of many adults, but they are not necessarily less distinugished for being so. And it is the same with children’s book awards. In fact, when you read the reasons for the establishment for the Newbery Medal, it’s all about the adults.

    From the Newbery manual–

    In Melcher’s formal agreement with the Board, the purpose of the Newbery Medal was stated as follows: “To encourage original and creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to literature for children deserve similar recognition for poetry, plays or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.”

    Joyce–

    We can probably spend lots of time debating and discussing how successfully Erksine has portrayed the voice and interior world of an autistic girl. As I mentioned, we all have different life experiences and different reading experiences. It may be that no amount of research and observation may be able to authentically capture such a voice, and so ultimately we as readers have to willingly suspend our disbelief and place our trust in the author. I don’t think the voice was meant to drive me crazy in this particular way. I always had an awareness that Caitlin was a bunch of ingredients (first person present tense, no quotation marks, random capitals, etc.) rather than a flesh and blood character. Thus, she seemed less real to me than characters I know cannot exist (e.g. Wilbur and Charlotte).

  16. Faith says:

    I reviewed this book for SLJ, and I really struggled over whether to recommend that it get a star. One of my comments to the editors was that I thought the book was important, but I wasn’t sure important was the same thing as distinguished. I think it gives kids a real chance to see weirdness from the other side, which is valuable, but I definitely had the same vocabulary issue as Jonathan. In addition, I responded strongly to something that wasn’t there. No human is perfect and Caitlin had the ability to remember practically everything. Why, when she remembered her brother, was there not even one tiny memory of him being impatient or in some other way imperfect? I would have been more able to believe that she could only remember/label people as all good or all bad if that had been the case with the other characters in the book. Maybe someone who knows more about Asberger’s can comment on this expectation of mine and whether or not it was reasonable.

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