Monday, April 29, 2013

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

Title:  Mockingbird
Author:  Kathryn Erskine
Publisher:  Philomel
Year:  2012
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disabilities, Autism, Overcoming Loss
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or 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 Asperger’s, 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

Erskine does an excellent job creating believable, relate-able characters, and Mockingbird is no exception.  Caitlin has Aspergers syndrome, a neurological condition about which much has been written over the past decade or so.  Now considered one of the conditions under the umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), people with Aspergers syndrome are often highly intelligent, creative people with difficulty understanding and processing pragmatic language and emotions.  Caitlin is very self-centered, but not in the conceited way of a spoiled child.  Caitlin has trouble with empathy, which becomes apparent early on through her interactions with her father, her counselor at school, and her father.  What makes this book about a child with ASD different from others I have read is the emotionally charged context-Caitlin's brother was killed in a school shooting, which forces her to come out of her own Caitlin-centric world and begin to take the needs and feelings of others into account.

Given the years I spent teaching special education, I'd say that Erskine is right on in regards to what she imagines goes on in Ccaitlin's head.  Of course, it's hard to say, since as far as I know Erskine herself does not have Aspergers, but it feels authentic based on my experiences with kids who have ASD.  Sometimes (unintentionally) funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always honest, Caitlin as narrator gives the story an emotional punch that would not be present in third person.  Dealing with the loss of her brother, and the subsequent grief of her father (as well as her own), is the instigating act that sets in motion a period of growth for Caitlin-and for the community as a whole.

While we have had way too many opportunities to read about school shootings and their aftermath, I think that Erskine does a good job framing the story with the shooting without describing it in such detail that it might frighten younger readers.  This book, despite the topic, is very accessible to mature 4th grade readers, and has something important to say to students in the middle grades.  Ultimately, Caitlin is not the only one to discover her empathy within the context of the story, and students can discuss what it means to be accepting of people with disabilities.  Also, any child who has suffered a major loss should find things that will resonate with them, and give them a chance to process their loss and discuss it in a less-threatening way through Caitlin's story.

Teacher Resources:
Lesson Ideas from Six Trait Gurus
Novel Study from
Kathryn Erskine's Website

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