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82 of 106 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wanting, October 25, 2010
This review is from: Mockingbird (Hardcover)
Children's librarians read quite a few books for kids and the result is that we tend to want to discuss them with one another. Unlucky librarians are surrounded solely by people who agree with their opinions. You're much luckier if you happen to have a group of close folks around you who can offer alternate takes on the books you read and critique. Now, it doesn't happen every year but once in a while children's books (novels in particular) become divisive. Folks draw battle lines in the sand and declare that a book is either infinitely lovable and the greatest thing since sliced bread, or loathsome beyond belief, the words shaming the very paper they are printed upon. In the last few years such divisive books have included everything from "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" to "The Underneath". This year, 2010, one particular book has earned that honor. "Mockingbird" by Kathryn Erskine marks the author's second foray into books for youth (the first being her young adult novel "Quaking"). It has garnered a great deal of praise, from such notable authors as Andrew Clements and Sharon Creech. It has been nominated, as of this review, for a National Book Award in the Young Person's category. And I tell you truly, I'm afraid that it's a book that just doesn't do it for me. There are some great books coming out in 2010, but this is simply not one of them.

Caitlin doesn't quite understand. Her older brother Devon is dead, killed tragically in a school shooting. She understands that, of course, but she doesn't like what his death has brought with it. As a kid with Asperger's, Caitlin has a difficult enough time figuring out the world around her as it is. Now she has glommed onto a word that seems to offer her a way out her current unhappiness: Closure. If she can find closure for Devon's death, maybe that will help her, help her dad, help everyone who's hurting. The only question is, what can a girl like Caitlin do to help herself and everyone else as well?

Here are some of the criticisms of "Mockingbird" that I personally do not ascribe to. 1: That children will not pick this book up. Certainly they won't pick up the hardcover (the paperback sports a much nicer, if unfortunately trendy, image) due to the fact that it's just a blue sky and not much else. But if they begin to read, I can see them being sufficiently intrigued to continue. 2: That this is not an authentic view of Asperger's. I don't agree, partially because you do have to take each child on a case by case basis.

Here are some of the criticisms of "Mockingbird" that I personally DO ascribe to: First off, there is the fact that the book is attempting too much at one time. This is true. "Mockingbird" wants to be three different kinds of books all at once. It would prefer to be a book about a school shooting and how a community deals with the aftermath. This is the very first thing Erskine mentions in the Author's Note, so it appears to be the most important to her. The second thing it would like to be is a book about Asperger's. Done. Third, it would ALSO like to be a book about a dead family member. That's three different storylines. Three that in and of themselves would be more than enough for any middle grade novel. And I think that two of them together would have worked just fine, but by adding all three together Erskine overplays her hand. She relies on Caitlin solving not just her own personal problems, but the problems of an entire community. This rings false for the reader, and the novel's conclusion ends up feeling rushed and pat rather than true and heartfelt.

Which brings us to my second problem. When it comes to the conclusion of any novel, the reader needs to believe in it. If everything appears too pat, you lose something along the way. In the case of Caitlin, the closure is too clean. Right off the bat you have the question of why Caitlin is so obsessed with the nature of closure, not just for herself but for everyone. Compare this book for a moment to Alan Silberberg's, "Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze". Like Caitlin, the hero of that book, Milo, is searching for a kind of closure to his mother's death. He is singularly self-obsessed, much like Caitlin, but his pain is his own, with some understanding that his dad and sister must feel somewhat similar. When Milo finds a solution to his problem (finding and seeking out objects that remind him of his mother) it inadvertently brings him and his father together again. That, I could believe. Caitlin's belief that she needs to find closure for her entire community, though? Unfortunately, I felt manipulated by that sudden shift in plotting. It seemed necessary for the story for Caitlin to help her community come to terms with her brother's death, but I didn't believe for a moment that Caitlin the character would care about others in this manner. She goes from an inability to feel empathy one moment to becoming the most empathetic girl in the whole wide world the next. I didn't buy it.

The writing itself for the most part wasn't problematic. However, there were little moments when I found it getting a touch cutesy. After hearing Mrs. Brook tell her that she is convinced that Caitlin can learn empathy, our heroine slips off her shoes and touches her toes to the floor. "I pull my feet off of the floor and shove them back into my sneakers. At least I tried dipping my toe in empathy." That's a fair example of a couple points in the story where the text becomes a little too on the nose to feel real. It doesn't happen often, but there are moments.

The Asperger's I do not question because that is tricky territory. I do not have a child with Asperger's and Ms. Erskine does. However, this raises a fairly interesting point in and of itself. When Cynthia Lord wrote the Newbery Honor winning book "Rules" she made her narrator not an autistic boy, but rather his put upon older sister. This was remarkably clever of her. Then, when you get to the end of the book, the reader finds out via the bookflap that the author has an autistic son of her own. The book is therefore lent a kind of authenticity through this admission. As I read "Mockingbird" however, I found myself wondering if the author had any personal connection or knowledge of Asperger's that could lend the book similar authenticity. I read the bookflap and the Author's Note and came up with nothing. Nada. It was only through the grapevine that I heard the rumor that Ms. Erskine has a daughter of her own with Asperger's. Now why on earth would the book wish to hide this fact? By the time I reached the end I wanted to believe that the writer had some knowledge of the subject, but instead of including a list of useful sources, or even a website kids can check, the Author's Note speaks instead about the Virginia Tech shootings. A harrowing incident to be sure, but why avoid mentioning that someone you love has a connection to your main character? It made for a very strange gap.

Finally, there is Caitlin's voice. It drove me absolutely insane. Some have argued that this is a good thing. If Caitlin's voice annoys you then the author must be doing something right in creating a character that doesn't fall into the usual middle grade pattern of protagonists. She is unique. I note this theory, but I don't agree with it. My annoyance isn't necessarily who Caitlin is, but rather the fact that I never for one moment believe that I'm listening to a girl. Instead, for much of this book I felt like I was reading an adult woman putting herself into the head of a girl like Caitlin. How else to explain the off-putting "humorous" moments when Caitlin fails to understand a word or term? We have been assured that she reads at an adult level. Certainly her vocabulary should be through the roof, and yet she stumbles when she hits words as simple as "closure" and "fundraiser" (turning it into the strangely out-of-character "fun raiser"). It seems that Caitlin is only as smart as the plot allows her to be. Otherwise, she's adorably out-of-place, and that manipulation rang false.

Many folks have found themselves comparing this book to a fellow 2010 release, "Out of My Mind" by Sharon Draper. Like "Mockingbird", Ms. Draper's book is a first person narrative of a girl dealing with the world around her. In Draper's story the main character has cerebral palsy, just as Ms. Draper's daughter does (and just as that book ALSO fails to mention anywhere). The difference for me lies in the characters. What I have found, though, is that many people dislike these books for similar reasons. Some people find "Mockingbird" charming and "Out of My Mind" manipulative. Others feel it's the other way around. Personally, I think that Draper's book is the better of the two, though Ms. Erskine is an excellent writer. I'm certain that in the future she will produce books that I will like to read. Unfortunately, in the case of "Mockingbird" the problems outweigh the positives. The book doesn't ring true for me, even if the writer is talented. Hopefully in the future we'll see more of her work but for now I'll be recommending books like "Out of My Mind" over others like "Mockingbird".

For ages 9-12.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 1, 2010 1:49:16 PM PDT
Kim B. says:
About the issues... I suspect that she avoided mentioning having a daughter with Asperger Syndrome because it might come off like she wrote the book specifically FOR her daughter, which might drive people away. (Yeah, I was a little bothered by that as well, but there will soon come a day when people can write books about individuals on the autism spectrum and not be accused of using a cheap gimmick. CERTAIN popular red doggie books may not make me feel particularly confident about that statement, but we've come a long way since then.)

The issue with her not understanding words is VERY characteristic of Asperger Syndrome. I do not know a single person with the disorder who hadn't done that at least once as a child. (I still do it sometimes.) I do somewhat agree that the ending was a touch unbelievable and that the book had a little too much going on, but this is seriously one of the only books about Asperger Syndrome that actually rang true to me. A kid with the disorder can be incredibly smart at times and extremely foolish and naive at others, and I see this happen all around me. It is confusing.

Great review (as always), even if I disagree.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 1, 2010 6:14:11 PM PDT
E. R. Bird says:
After I wrote the review a fair amount of folks pointed out the same thing you did. That her not mentioning her daughter was hardly a fault of the novel itself and that if I had issues with the book I should really limit myself TO the book. I think that's a more than fair point. I'd withdraw it, but I don't like mucking with reviews after I post them, so the statement stays, warts and all. The rest I stand by.

Posted on Nov 11, 2010 6:38:35 AM PST
I agree completely! I also read both of the books you mentioned, and though I liked Mockingbird as an adult reader, I think that Out of My Mind is much more approachable for kids, and had just made that comparison when I was writing up my review.

I heard a young adult give a presentation last year about her life with Asperger's, and we were all amazed by her honesty. Having heard her story, I did see Caitlin's story as pretty true.

Posted on Dec 15, 2010 3:42:50 PM PST
racapowski says:
I have a professional interest in Japan, which I initially indulged by attempting to read a broad spectrum of material from many different authors. I soon found a common thread in most books on the subject by Western authors, though - they didn't really make an effort to understand the culture. They spent their pages instead in an odd form of self-praise - making fun of Japanese and pointing out how much better they operated in day-to-day life than many natives, expounding on how much better Japanese culture would be if THEY had a say in it. It got to a point where I decided to read only works by Japanese authors rather than grind through a bunch of self-impressed narrators with more axes to grind than curiosity.

Perhaps it's unadvisable to compare a culture to a condition, but I think a similar criterion is going to have to be applied to books about Asperger's. We're overwhelmed with fictionalized case studies from outsiders and ending up with a lot of lazy misinformation. The popular rationale for the narrator's voice in other reviews seems symptomatic of this: "I mean, people with Asperger's are annoying, so her voice should be annoying too, right? Who cares if it rings false for her age?" The same goes for the heroine's cutesy but illogical misunderstanding of certain words: the author seems to be making the common extrovert mistake of socially inept + doesn't talk much = must be stupid in all other aspects (of which I, as an introvert, am beyond weary). I do not question Erskine's love for her child, but *loving* someone is not the same as *understanding* them - that takes patience, curiosity, and empathy. Instead, too many authors seem to be taking their characterization of Asperger's from old Kirk Outsmarts the Computer Star Trek episodes: "What is this 'love' of which you humans speak? ::beep boop::"

Yeah, I've gone on a bit here, but this particular breed of bad writing gets me because it's so damaging: it teaches those with Asperger's to hate themselves and view themselves as second-class citizens. (Worse yet, it comes with its own escape clause for those who espouse it: People with Asperger's have trouble with emotions, right? So they won't feel bad if we treat them as subhuman! Case in point: I myself would think twice before referring to my charges as "extremely foolish and naive," even in the context of an anonymous Amazon review comment.) I'm afraid the condition is becoming what that of the mentally challenged was in the 80's and 90's: a Hallmark disease for authors who are more apt at pap and tugging heartstrings than research or understanding.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 16, 2010 8:27:55 AM PST
Ulyyf says:
"Yeah, I've gone on a bit here, but this particular breed of bad writing gets me because it's so damaging: it teaches those with Asperger's to hate themselves and view themselves as second-class citizens."

I don't think they realize that aspie/autistic kids will be reading their books at all. It's like those books about Japan you're referencing - they're not written for the Japanese, so they assume nobody who knows anything about Japan will ever come near them, so it doesn't matter (they think) what they say.

Posted on Jan 5, 2011 9:07:49 AM PST
joanna says:
I disagree that the book had too much going on. Caitlin told the story: she is talking about what is going on in her life. More than one thing is going on, so...there is more than one part. The book is not about Asperger's, it's just told by someone who has that syndrome.

I also disagree with your characterization of the ending. I don't think Caitlin found closure for the whole community. I think she thought she had to, but that presenting the chest in the way they did was more about closure for Caitlin and her father than about closure for everyone. Keep in mind that the story is told strictly from Caitlin's perspective.

That being said, I appreciate a review that is honest and not full of gushing praise.

And this:
I wonder if knowing the author's daughter had Asperger's is really necessary. I think it lends some authenticity to the book that might otherwise be lacking... I almost feel like it's an issue of Getting It: can a white person write authentically about a black person? Can a person with no true experience with cancer write about cancer? Most writers use their own lives and their own experiences somewhat in their fiction, and I am pretty sure most stay within the realms of that with which they are familiar. We don't know what the world is like, truly, for anyone but ourselves -- no matter how much empathy we have. I wonder...

Posted on Apr 9, 2011 6:47:15 PM PDT
I generally like your reviews very much. I've found so many magnificent books from you, and I admire your crisp, fresh, engaging approach. You have prescience; you're not afraid to jump first. I liked Mockingbird more than you did, but I can see the faults you pointed out.
I would like to say something about the issue of Ms. Erskine and Ms. Draper not directly mentioning their children's disabilities on their book flaps. As a person born deaf with a pulmonary disability, I'm actually rather shocked that you think that "outing" your disabled kids in published books gives an author any kind of cred. The children are their own people; they have a right to privacy. Some of them can decide as adults if they want to discuss their disabilities publicly. Others who will never be able to decide for themselves should be treated with great consideration.
It's sad to me not only that there are so few children's book authors with disabilities, but also that the "I had a gay teacher once" approach is still encouraged even expected of people writing about disabled folks. Writers I admire like Sarah Miller and Josh Berk made me cringe with their book flap statements of being in the know somehow with the communities they were writing about. I cannot imagine myself writing about a Latino character and explaining in my author's note that I took high school Spanish and joined a Latino chat room to do research. It's an act of sympathetic imagination; let's leave it at that.
As far as multicultural kiddie lit goes, I'm afraid we deafies and other differently-abled folks have a long way to go!

Posted on Jan 5, 2012 12:05:20 PM PST
Suzuki Beane says:
As a pediatric occupational therapist who works extensively with children who have Asperger's Syndrome, I would like to say that I found Caitlin's voice to be extremely representative of what I deal with daily. These children are cognitively brilliant, but they are so literal that they seem feebleminded when they try to apply what they know to real life. Hugging a dictionary for comfort seemed fully plausible to me, and there was nothing about Caitlin's thought processes or language that seemed cutesy or inauthentic to me, especially the part where she thought it was her responsibility to bring closure to the entire community. That was never actually the case in the story, and the fact that her idea did help with community closure is not much different from any young adult fiction plot where the thirteen-year-old solves a mystery that the police can't crack.

The leap into empathy also rang true to me, although I did cringe about the barefoot in the grass scene, both because "dip my feet into empathy" is far too abstract for Caitlin and because she had already demonstrated such sensory defensiveness that she would NOT have done that on her own initiative. But once these children understand cognitively that not everybody is feeling the same thing they are feeling, they often will make the effort to understand, and will work hard toward the socially acceptable expressions of empathy, sometimes even to the point of actually feeling it, as Caitlin did.

When someone wants to read only one book about Asperger's Syndrome instead of an entire booklist, this is the one I usually recommend if they want fiction, and "Send in the Clowns" if they want nonfiction.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 5, 2012 12:55:54 PM PST
Ulyyf says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on May 6, 2013 10:21:05 AM PDT
D. Stahl says:
My 11YO daughter enjoyed the book and definitely sympathized with Caitlyn in a lot of ways; while my daughter has not been diagnosed with Aspergers, she has always had some of the traits and behaviors Caitlyn has and found it relevant and in fact comforting in some ways. My daughter acknowledged that there were some sad parts to the book, but she also noticed the literal way in which Caitlyn sees the world, how she interprets expressions - an area we had difficulty with for some time despite my kid having been a fluent reader since 26 months and a vocabulary through the roof forever - and some of the social interaction difficulties.

Our neighborhood school has an imbedded preschool for autistic kids in which many of the students volunteer to be student helpers, and there is an outreach effort to the K-5 kids that I think has made a HUGE difference in how kids with all sorts of differences are treated by their peers. I didn't see anything in this book that made me think it would be OK to treat an autistic person badly, or for kids like my daughter to view herself as second-class; if anything, I think she appreciated all the more that there are kids like her on different area of the perception and social skills spectrum, if you will, and she has become pretty comfortable with herself over the past few years, to the point that I'm actually not that worried about how she'll do when she goes to middle school next year. I would actually recommend this book for kids who might be looking for a window into the minds of classmates who have Aspergers - along with sensitive discussion, of course.
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