The Children's Book Compass

A Memorable Novel

Posted on: October 17, 2010

Mockingbird (mok’ing-bûrd) by Kathryn Erskine.  (2010) 235 pages.  Philomel.  Grades 5 and up.  Novel/Realistic Fiction.

Some books make indelible imprints on our hearts and memories.  Mockingbird (mok’ing-bûrd) is such a book because it helps us understand and have empathy for a child with Asperger’s syndrome.  Caitlin, a ten-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome, narrates the story of how she tries to help herself and her dad deal with grief.  Her older brother, Devon and two others were killed in a shooting at his middle school.  The school counselor, Mrs. Brook, works with Caitlin.  Mrs. Brook tells her that, “people have a hard time understanding me (Caitlin) because I have Asperger’s so I have to try extra hard to understand them and that means working on emotions.”   In a T.V. news report of the tragedy Caitlin hears the newscaster say, “isn’t it good that we now have closure?”  Caitlin wonders “how CLOsure can help.  And what it is.”  Her dictionary, gives her a definition of closure:  “the state of experiencing an emotional conclusion to a difficult life event such as the death of loved one.”  Caitlin works hard to figure out how to reach closure in order to heal her father’s grief and her own.

Erskine writes in her Author Note at the end, “This book was inspired by the events at Virginia Tech as well as my own need to try to explain what it’s like for a child to have Asperger’s syndrome.  … I hope that by getting inside her head (Caitlin), readers will understand seemingly bizarre behavior.  And I hope that readers will see that, by getting inside someone’s head, really understanding that person, so many misunderstandings and problems can be avoided—misunderstandings and problems that can lead to mounting frustration and , sometimes, even violence.”

Erkine’s skill at storytelling and creating realistic characters helps her readers achieve that understanding.  Caitlin’s literal take on the world provides levity and keeps the story from being sad.   The characterizations of Mrs. Brook and Caitlin’s teachers show the positive support teachers and counselors can provide.  The title refers to the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Caitlin loved to watch it with her brother and sees herself as Scout.  Caitlin’s love of books enriches the story. She says – “Books are not like people.  Books are safe.”  Reference books and stories provide help her understand emotions.  This is a book that children will want to discuss.  Such discussions may lead to new understandings about the pain caused by bullying.

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