Sunday, May 22, 2011

Review: Mockingbird


by Kathryn Erskine

From the moment we are born, we begin learning. We watch the adults around us and mimic their actions and, slowly but surely, start to get the hang of the basics--sitting up, crawling, walking, talking. There is a whole other set of skills that most of us pick up naturally, not really having to consciously learn or practice them--the skill of recognizing when someone is angry, the skill of seeing that a friend is sad and offering them comfort. But did you ever think of what it would be like if you didn't learn these things? How would your life be different if you had no idea what it meant when someone rolled their eyes at you or lifted the corners of their mouth upward to form a smile?

Welcome to the world of Caitlin Smith. Caitlin, the protagonist of Kathryn Erskine's Mockingbird, is an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger's syndrome. For people with Asperger's, the emotions of those around them are a mysterious and confusing thing. They struggle to identify the emotions of others, and, furthermore, to empathize with them. For example, when Caitlin sees a look on someone's face, she has to think back to a chart of different faces that her counselor, Ms. Brook, has been teaching her. Are the eyebrows raised? Is the mouth frowning? Are the eyes watery? Figuring out the emotion of the person in front of her is like solving a very frustrating puzzle. As you can imagine, this makes social connections very difficult. At the beginning of the book, Caitlin has no friends. And it certainly does not seem hopeful that Caitlin is coming to the end of fifth grade, right when any kid's social life starts to get a whole lot more complicated. Middle school: mean girls, cliques, in-crowds. If identifying a smile is tough, imagine trying to figure out sarcasm!

It doesn't stop there. When you meet Caitlin at the beginning of Mockingbird, you soon figure out that she and her father have just suffered a horrible tragedy--the death of her older brother Devon. Kathryn Erskine does a beautiful job of "showing" rather than "telling" in this book. The reader experiences everything in the novel through Caitlin's eyes. This is especially powerful because very often, Caitlin does not understand the feelings of those around her. Caitlin describes the things they do and say, the tiny movements of their faces and tremblings in their voices, and although she might not know what they are feeling, the reader does. And it is heart-breaking. So many times, while reading this book, I wanted to reach in and comfort the people around Caitlin, who were so clearly hurting from the loss of Devon.

At other times, I found myself wanting to jump into the book and translate for Caitlin. After a few chapters, you find yourself starting to understand Caitlin's logic. Often, what seems like a completely random tantrum to those around her, makes perfect sense if you understand the thought process that led Caitlin there. You start to realize that Devon was Caitlin's interpreter to the world. Through the memories she shares, you learn that Devon understood her like nobody else. He taught her how to interact with people and he was endlessly patient with her. Without him, it's like she has been abandoned in a foreign land without a map.

It is fascinating and beautiful to watch through Caitlin's eyes as she and her father (and the entire small, Virginia town in which they live) try to heal from the loss of Devon. It makes you thankful for things you never before thought of and it makes you realize that there is no one correct way to grieve. And although Caitlin's Asperger's often acts as an obstacle in her attempts to make connections, at other moments, it makes you question the logic of the "normal" way to act. At times, it is Caitlin's blunt honesty (which often accompanies her misunderstandings of other people's feelings) that leads to breakthroughs in her family's and community's mourning process.

Mockingbird is a very special book. It makes you step back and see the miracle of human closeness. Through Caitlin's observations of the world, you realize that human connections are a joyful, messy, complicated and extraordinary thing and that we should be deeply grateful for them. In one scene, she describes a little boy gathering his friends from around the playground. She watches in wonder and notices how "it's like his friends are tied to him with a string because they run to him from all directions until they all end up in front of me" (p. 95). It is often those who do not have something that can describe it the most beautifully and this is true of Caitlin throughout the book. I felt sad to part with her at the end but also felt thankful for all she had taught me. For anyone who would like to step into the shoes of someone you never thought you could understand, Mockingbird is a must-read.

Release date: April, 2010

Things to think about as you read Mockingbird:
-Point of view and perspective
-Internal conflict
-Narrator tone and voice

You might also like...
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin
A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

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