With her latest book, Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine gives an incredibly heartfelt and wonderful gift to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, their parents and teachers, and their peers.
It is, quite simply, the gift of knowing that there is someone (Erskine herself) who “gets it.” And that knowledge, that understanding, is truly something “good and strong and beautiful,” to quote one of the many themes that resonate through this book.
When we meet fifth grader Caitlin Smith, her world seems to be anything but good and strong and beautiful. It is a world where her mother died when she was 3, and her beloved brother Devon was recently killed (along with several others) during a school shooting. Left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives are Caitlin and her grieving father.
While such a tragedy would be difficult for anyone to comprehend, it is compounded even moreso by the fact that Caitlin has Asperger’s Syndrome. Her world is very much like the charcoal drawings she creates: black and white. No color, no gray area, no ambiguity. All that is confusing to Caitlin, and she struggles – oh, how she struggles! – to make sense of the senseless, to cope with feelings, to try and reach the elusive closure.
Although he is deceased when we meet him in the story, Devon is very much present as Caitlin’s protective big brother. As Erskine brilliantly shows us his character and personality, the reader begins to understand just how monumental this loss is to Caitlin – for it was Devon who helped her navigate her way through a world that isn’t always kind to, or easy for, people who have autism.
As regular readers of this blog know, my son has Asperger’s. Some of the dialogue that Caitlin has with her classmates could have been conversations that Boo has with his peers, and some of the conversations (and yes, frustrations) that we have with Boo are incredibly accurate. Erskine gets this, and she gets the perspective of a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. The emotions are so accurate, so true-to-life, and so heartbreakingly real. Mockingbird is a book that shows Asperger’s as it is: not sugar-coated, not in a light where everyone’s a genius (I love that she celebrates Caitlin’s artistic ability without making her out to be the next Michaelangelo), and most importantly, not as a condition to be pitied. Because while your heart certainly goes out to Caitlin, pity doesn’t enter into it.
Winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Mockingbird is that rare type of novel that transcends the ages. It is categorized as for ages 10-12, making it a middle grade book, but it is really a book that everyone can identify with and relate to. In that regard, it’s almost unfortunate that Mockingbird has an age range because it’s an ageless story in a modern day context. We’ve all been part of a community that has suffered tragedy and needs to come together for healing, we’ve all had our moments of struggle as parents, we’ve all been that 10 year old who is just trying to fit in and make sense of the world.
It is also beautifully and exquisitely written, layered with rich symbolism and meaning. The imagery of a bird with a broken wing and then flying free. An unfinished chest that was Devon’s Eagle Scout project, and the bullets that pierced his chest. The connections and similarities with many aspects of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
Finally, I need to say something about the audio version of this, which I listened to and which is magnificently narrated by Angela Jayne Rogers. She captures the nuances and cadences of Caitlin’s speech and brings her to life in a very real way. I’m not sure how old Ms. Rogers is, but she has the perfect voice for Caitlin – as well as all the other characters. This is a talent, and I will definitely be looking for her work in the future.
Teachers, if you have To Kill a Mockingbird on your syllabus, you would be doing your students a true service by following it up with Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird. Forget the 10-12 age range, and tell your students it won’t matter by the time they finish the last page. This has the capacity to be just as much a classic – and dare I say, just as important a book for these times of unprecedented increase in school-related violence as well as autism spectrum disorders.
Mockingbird is a true gift to the autism community, to the educators who help our kids, and to the parents. And for a group of people for whom friendships are often a struggle, they have found a true friend in Kathryn Erskine.
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