Caitlin doesn’t see the world as others see it. She prefers black and white to color. She’s matter-of-fact and unemotional. She takes meanings very literally. She dislikes loud noises. And she hates when anyone invades her Personal Space. Caitlin has Asperger’s Syndrome.
Kathryn Erskine has created a beautiful character and surrounded her with difficulty. Not only does Caitlin’s struggle with social graces make her an oddity in the fifth grade and leave her virtually friendless, her brother has recently died in a school shooting. Devon was the one who explained thing to her in ways she could understand. It was Devon who took the pains to make sure Caitlin was secure and unafraid. Devon helped her navigate a world she doesn’t fully understand. But now Devon is gone.
Ms. Erskine does a phenomenal job getting inside Caitlin’s head. She tells the story from the girl’s perspective, using fragmented or run-on sentences, nonstandard capitalization and even emphasized syllables to give readers a glimpse of this unique mind. Her thoughts are understandable and make perfect sense to the reader, but they don’t always make sense to her classmates. When Rachel, another fifth-grader, bruises her face in a biking accident, Caitlin tries hard to Be A Friend:
Rachel asks (the other girls) if her face looks really bad and Emma says, Of course not. It looks totally fine.
Rachel says, Really? She looks around and her eyes stop at me.
…What? Her voice is soft and shaky. Does my face look bad?
…I wonder how she knows that honesty is one of my skills. Yes, I say. It looks bad. It’s purple and puffy and really gross.
Rachel starts crying and runs out of the room.
…I try to say that purple is actually my favorite color but too many of the girls are yelling at me.
Such scenarios arouse tremendous sympathy for the uncomprehending child and make readers take a hard look at what living with Asperger’s means. The book has a very serious air, but it’s not all depressing. Caitlin, who’s having trouble relating to kids her own age on the playground, is granted recess time with the younger kids and befriends a first-grader named Michael. They have some delightful conversations, my favorite being a discussion of figures of speech that neither of them understand. Phrases like “crash and burn.”
My grandmother says that kind of stuff all the time. She says shake a leg when she wants you to hurry and perk up your ears when she wants you to listen and be a doll when she wants you to get her a glass of iced tea.
I can’t help giggling…
Michael laughs too. Want to know my favorite thing she says? When she wants you to be patient she says…keep your pants on!
I laugh too. Why would you take your pants off?
I don’t know! He howls.
But through it all, Caitlyn, who struggles so hard to convey and Get emotion, begins to understand how the tragic shooting has affected Michael, and herself, and her father, and the community. She begins to empathize. “Even though I didn’t think I’d like empathy it kind of creeps up on you and makes you feel all warm and glowy inside. I don’t think I want to go back to life without empathy.”
In conclusion, Mockingbird brilliantly tackles some very difficult topics. It does so with depth and emotion and in a way totally appropriate for young readers. I’ve read several books this year that feature school shootings, and personally I was a little disappointed to see it yet again. However, Erskines ability to get inside Caitlyn’s head is phenomenal. I recommend this National Book Award winner.