I know it’s not very professional, but I always have to stifle a laugh when a kid comes up to me at the reference desk and tells me that their teacher wants them to read a book where “the main character has a problem.” The punch line is, of course, that in every novel - whether it takes place in Brooklyn, at Hogwarts, or on the planet Xenu - the main character has a problem. Snarky criticism of teacher’s phraseology aside, I know what the kids mean. They are looking for realistic fiction where the main character has a big ticket problem, like Divorce, Drug Addiction, or Homelessness.
Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, told from the perspective of Caitlin, a fifth grader with Asperger’s syndrome who recently lost her brother in a school shooting, boasts two problems for the price of one. But, I can promise you a no didactics/no cheesy resolution guarantee. Although books about characters with Asperger’s are increasingly prevalent (see: Cynthia Lord’s excellent middle grade novel Rules or Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night), and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a novel about a school shooting (see: examples too numerous to mention) Mockingbird doesn’t feel like a retread. Erskine draws on her own experiences of having a daughter with a mild case of Asperger’s, and does a wonderful job of rendering Caitlin as a three-dimensional, sympathetic character. Reading Mockingbird is a welcome glimpse inside the head of someone with a uniquely wired mind.
People with Asperger’s generally have above average intelligence, but are very literal, and can’t read social cues. They have to consciously learn many of the things that we take for granted, like when someone draws their eyebrows together, they are confused, or when someone says “I have a lot of work to do,” they are asking you to let them get back to work, not simply stating a fact. In Mockingbird, Caitlin is devastated by the loss of her brother Devon, both because she loved him, but also because he was her interpreter. Through him, the world was made understandable, and without him, it seems there is no one who Gets It.
A major theme of Mockingbird is empathy. Part of Caitlin’s symptomatology is that she doesn’t understand the feelings of others. Conversely, Caitlin’s dad, her teacher, and her counselor have just as much trouble seeing the world through Caitlin’s eyes. In one of many heartbreaking moments, Caitlin’s father asks her what she would like to do for her birthday, and she replies that she’d like to go shopping at the mall with her brother. Shocked, Caitlin’s dad explains what he thought Caitlin already understood; Devon can’t take her to the mall, because Devon is dead. Caitlin is frustrated, because she knows this, but her father has asked her what she wanted, and she answered the question. Neither father nor daughter understand why the other is saying what they are saying, and it eventually takes the school counselor to unravel the misunderstanding, and explain to Caitlin that her father wanted to know what to plan for her birthday, and to explain to her father that Caitlin does understand that Devon is dead, and in no position to take her to the mall, but that she wishes that he could.
Because it covers trendy topics and is poignant and well written, Mockingbird is classic award bait, but it is also a surprisingly universal story about finding a way to live after the worst happens. I highly recommend this book to adult readers of children’s literature, and hope that teachers, librarians, and parents find a way to get it into the hands of young readers as well. With diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome on the rise, who among us couldn’t use a little more empathy?