Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

This is the second book in as many days that draws on Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird for themes and character development.  Much like Sure Signs of Crazy, Mockingbird far exceeded my expectations and touched me deeply.

I responded very strongly to this book, which has a narrator with Asperger's, because my brother is on the spectrum.  Please do think of it that way: a spectrum.  A sliding measure.  The light spectrum, for example, includes all colors of light.  No one color is exactly like another in the measure of photons or wavelength.  It is unique--but it is still light.  So it is with people on the spectrum.  They may have similar symptoms, and there are a range of behaviors and presentations that would qualify as Autism Spectrum, but no two people on the spectrum are alike.  However, Erskine did a wonderful job of portraying the inner narrative of someone who has extreme difficulty relating to emotions, reading faces, and understanding literal versus figurative speech (to name just a few).

Caitlin is in fifth grade.  People already think she's a "weirdo" because she has Asperger's.  Touching is a no, and she wears the same types of clothes every day because they're comfortable and there are no tags--who cares if they're not stylish or trendy?  Caitlin hates recess because it's so loud and kids get out of control--it stresses her so much that she refers to that nervous, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as recess or recess feeling.  This makes total sense to me, as a fellow recess-hater.

If it doesn't sound hard enough being a young girl whose classmates mock you for being different, try being the girl whose brother died in a school shooting.  Devon, Caitlin's older brother, loved her unconditionally and helped her deal with her issues in any and every way he could (although he certainly wasn't perfect!).  He was working toward being an Eagle Scout, and his project was to carve a chest.  Except when two boys started shooting at his middle school, it was his own chest that shattered, blasted by bullets.  Caitlin and Devon had already lost their mom to cancer, so their dad really suffers.  Erskine doesn't minimize the impact this sort of tragedy would have on a single dad--Caitlin often hears him take "crying showers" and wonders why her matter-of-fact discussions about death and Devon upset her dad so much.

Like Sarah in Sure Signs of Crazy, Caitlin is also a logophile.  She collects words: the one that holds the most promise in her life is "closure."  She realizes she needs closure about Devon.  But, she'll find that closure isn't as easy as shutting a door and locking it.

I thought every single detail of Caitlin's Asperger's rang true, and it wasn't preachy or maudlin.  Using Her Words, Looking People In the Face, and Getting It are all important but difficult concepts for her, but she doesn't use that as an excuse.  She is always working harder on Getting It.

The tie-in with TKAM felt effortless and poignant.  Devon always called Caitlin "Scout" because she made people think and act just by her artless and truthful speech.  In turn, he was her Jem.  Except Devon didn't escape the attack by Bob Ewell.

Not everyone will love the narrative style of this book.  I admit to feeling disheartened and even a bit riled up when I read some negative reviews of this.  For so long, mental illness was not something people talked about.  It was hushed up, covered up, and we pretended it didn't exist, or--even worse--that it was something that the person could fix themselves by just being a bit more perky.  Maybe it's my rose-colored glasses (contacts are a no-no in allergy season), but I would give this ten stars if I could.  According to convention, though, I have to settle for five, and it would deserve those even for just making people talk about Asperger's and empathy and kindness.  About what to do when horrible things happen to children and, as adults, we weren't in time to stop it.

Extraordinary.  Just like Caitlin.


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