Sunday, January 30, 2011
With her National Book Award winning young adult novel, Mockingbird, Kathryn Erskine brings us into the heart and mind of a fifth-grader named Caitlin, whose mom is deceased, whose brother has been killed by an act of school violence, and whose dad is nearly paralyzed with sadness. This would be too much for any of us, but it's particularly overwhelming for a little girl who has Asperger's syndrome—a girl who is bound to a most literal understanding of words, a girl who must study a book of expressions to understand the meaning of faces, a girl for whom making friends is not only difficult but not, at least a first, a top priority. Caitlin's older brother, Devon, meant the world to her; he was, in fact, the one who best understood how to crack open the world on her behalf. With Devon gone, all the tricky negotiations are now Caitlin's responsibility—Caitlin and the school counselor and a boy named Michael who help untangle some of life's knottiest threads.
Readers look for momentum in plot, the what-is-going-to-happen-next?. Erskine's great literary achievement with this beautifully written book is how deeply she invests her readers in caring whether or not Caitlin will make a true friend, or agree to lend color to her immaculate black and white drawings, or, mostly, help her dad finish an Eagle Scout project that her brother had started before his death. Perhaps that might not seem like much to those who line up at midnight to find out whether Katniss Everdeen will survive the battering of District 12 in the year's other major Mocking book (Mockingjay), but I would argue that what Erskine creates here is bigger, more essential—a powerful look at one who is "special" and a loving portrait of a community reeling in the aftermath of a terrible act of violence.
Mockingbird can be read in one sitting. It absolutely should be.