It seems that I’m last to the party on Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, but better late than never is definitely my sentiment when it comes to this touching and hopeful story. This is yet another story about a child, this time a girl, with Asperger’s syndrome. I’m not sure why I’m drawn so much to these stories, but I am. I have limited association with children or young adults who are “on the autism spectrum,” but what my limited experience has taught me is that each of these persons is unique and not completely defined by the label and symptoms associated with his or her diagnosis. I think that’s what I like the books, especially those narrated by the autistic child or young adult–I have a chance to really get to know the person, rather than just the diagnosis.
Mockingbird is a complicated story. Caitlin Smith is a fifth grader who is in a regular fifth grade classroom, but she has had daily sessions with a counselor, Mrs. Brook, since the day Caitlin refers to as The Day Our Life Fell Apart. That day would be the day her brother Devon, a middle school students, was killed in a school shooting. Devon was Caitlin’s biggest helper and advocate; their widowed father is at a loss, at times, to know how to help Caitlin, but Devon always knew what to do to help her navigate a world that doesn’t always make sense to her. Devon was in the final stages of finishing his Eagle Scout project for Boy Scouts, and the chest he was building is one touchstone for Caitlin that symbolizes the elusive Closure that she, her father, and their community need. The title of the novel is, of course, taken from To Kill a Mockingbird; Devon called Caitlin “Scout” because he said she reminded her of the feisty little girl, and likewise, Caitlin compares Devon to Jem and her father (rightly or wrongly, which maybe changes as the book progresses) Atticus. I really liked the comparison, of course, since I love To Kill a Mockingbird.
There are a couple of stylistic things about this story that I found a little bit annoying. First, there are no quotation marks anywhere in this story. None. Instead, Erskine chose to denote someone speaking by italicizing their words. I grew accustomed to this, and I get that it is probably meant to help capture Caitlin’s understanding of and dealings with the world better than the standard convention would, but I still found it odd at first. The other one is that Caitlin has her own method of capitalizing words and phrases (which I’ve tried to preserve above). Words and phrases that are important to her are capitalized, whether or not they should be. Again, I got used to it, and given the characterization of Caitlin, I probably wouldn’t have thought it were so odd if I hadn’t followed this book immediately with The Trouble with May Amelia, a book by Jennifer L. Holm that thumbs its nose at convention in almost the exact same way. The difference is that there is no neurologically atypical protagonist in May Amelia. This, in turn, made me wonder if this was simply a gimmick–a way to make these books stand out. Thoughts, anyone?
These little quirky stylistic oddities aside, I really like Mockingbird. I like that it, like so many of the books I’ve read with autistic characters, made me once again think about what makes us human. This is my favorite passage from Mockingbird, an exchange between Caitlin and Mrs. Brook:
I sigh and fold my arms. Fine. I glance at her eyes. They are black and white and brown. Like Devon’s. I never noticed that before. I’m so surprised that I actually stare instead of looking away.
Good! That’s very good Caitlin! That’s how you show people you’re interested in them and that you’re listening to them. Can you see how happy my eyes are right now?
I nod. I’m still staring at her eyes or where her eyes used to be when she turns her haead to look where she’s walking. When she turns back I catch the eyes again and keep staring. I’m getting good at this.
Okay but you don’t have to stare qutie so hard or quite so long.
I close my eyes.
You can just look away briefly and then come back to my eyes again.
Try to make it a little smoother so you don’t look like you’re about to jump on top of me when you stare into my eyes.
See? It’s too hard!
But you did it! All we’re doing now is working on refinement. You just have to keep trying. It’s all about finesse.
I like that word. What does it mean?
Doing something tactfully and skillfilly while dealing with a difficult situation.
I’m surprised that I’m only learning this word now. This word is all about me! It’s what I’m trying to do every day to Deal With this difficult situation called life. (87-89) *
I like this a lot. I think we’re all working on finesse, aren’t we?
Serendipitously, the movie Temple Grandin same from Netflix right after I finished reading Mockingbird. I didn’t know much about Temple Grandin before watching the movie, but both Steady Eddie and I found the movie interesting and inspirational. I now want to read something by Grandin; I want to know what she has to say about living life as an autistic individual. I suppose that’s the one thing that makes me question the novels I’ve read: they are all written (as far as I know) by “normal” authors, so I wonder–how accurately do they portray how an autistic person really sees and relates to the world?
Mockingbird was a 2010 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature. Sherry liked it, but Betsy didn’t care for it. I give it a Highly Recommended.
Other books with autistic characters, linked to my reviews:
- Rules by Cynthia Lord
- Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
- Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin
I can’t not point out here, too, another TKM-related novel, In Search of Mockingbird, which I also enjoyed. (Linked to my review.)
*I had to underline the words that are italicized in the book because the format for quotations on my blog is italics.