Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mockingbird - Kathryn Erskine

Also reviewed by Mindy.

Summary:  In Caitlin's world, everything is black and white.  Things are good or bad.  Anything in between is confusing.  That's the stuff Caitlin's older brother, Devon, has always explained.  But now Devon's dead and Dad is no help at all.  Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Aspergers, she doesn't know how.  When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs.  In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white--the world is full of colors--messy and beautiful.  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://www.bookalicious.ca/)

My Review:  Caitlin's life is hard -- not just hard because of her Aspergers, but hard because of losing her mother and brother, and living with a dad who is struggling to deal with the grief himself. Combine that with a girl who doesn't understand her own grief, let alone her father's, and it's a recipe for emotional and social disaster.

I enjoyed reading from the perspective of a child with autism. Until you throw yourself into Caitlin's shoes, it's hard to remember or realize just how much of our daily conversation is filled with phrases or figures of speech that are not literal. For a child with autism this is a land mine of confusion. Caitlin was amazingly resilient, finding ways to bounce back from hard knocks that could drop anyone into a pool of depression. 

My favorite line in the book is not from the story itself, but from the author's note in the back.  It perfectly conveys the great overall message of this story:
If we all understood each other better, we could go a long way toward stopping violence.  We all want to be heard, to be understood.  Some of us are better than others at expressing ourselves.  Some of us have severe problems that need to be addressed, not ignored, no matter the cost.  Saving society money is a travesty if the cost of that savings is in human lives.  Ignore and ignorance share the same root.
Erskine's writing is simple and straightforward, though I disliked the italicized writing for dialogue (a pet-peeve of mine).  Quotation marks make it easier distinguish speech from thoughts.  Caitlin capitalizes words that are part of phrases she is trying to understand, and while the italicized dialogue bothered me, this did not.  From my experience with autistic students, this is the case.  They can fixate on something and until they feel they fully grasp it, they will doggedly pursue the information. 

Would I recommend this book for my students?  You bet.  Do I think it's rock-solid in its portrayal of autism?  Not so much.  There were parts, specifically the end, that didn't end quite right. I've never known anyone with autism to figure out so many aspects of grey-area within such a short time. Maybe it was Erskine's way of dealing with difficult subject matter in a children's book, or maybe it's because the book simply couldn't go on as long as it really would have taken for a child to deal with these issues and still appeal to a child audience. I'm not sure, but the rushed resolution made the book feel inaccurate. For all the trauma this little girl went through I can only imagine it would have taken her years to start understanding empathy the way she does in a few short months.  Still, it's a great message about empathy and compassion and all of us need reminders of that.

Rating:  3.75 Stars

Sum it up:  The overall message is great, but the depiction of someone with Aspergers doesn't sit quite right.

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