Book Review: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

I bought this book at a conference simply based on word of mouth, and I’m glad I did. It’s a middle reader—about a fifth grader named Caitlin—dealing with Asperger’s syndrome in the aftermath of a school shooting.

I was skeptical upon first reading the premise because I didn’t want to read a book that dwelled on a school shooting. Though school shootings are terrible, I know there are terrible things people deal with every day which are often ignored. Luckily, this book did exactly what it needed to do.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is that it’s told in the first person point of view through the point of view of Caitlin. The author has a child with Asperger’s, and that allowed her to get us into the head of a child who seems “strange” to the rest of the world. This alone made the book worth the read.

Caitlin’s older brother had been the only one to truly understand Caitlin, and after he’s killed in a school shooting at the middle school, Caitlin is left with only her father, who is too busy grieving to be of much help. But Caitlin is persistent and intelligent, and she makes it her goal to help herself, her father, and her community find the closure they so desperately need.

The title references the movie To Kill A Mockingbird, which was Caitlin’s favorite movie to watch with her brother. He called her Scout, from the story, and the novel makes several allusions to Harper Lee’s classic. All the while, an unfinished wooden trunk (Devon’s unfinished Eagle Scout project) haunts the corner of the living room, and Caitlin tries to think of what to do about it.

Reading the notes from the author, I learned this book was inspired by her own child but also by the shooting at Virginia Tech. As she noted, it doesn’t seem like there’s much we can do to prevent shootings, but the one thing that seems to go ignored is simply making an effort to understand each other and reach out to one another.

Watching Caitlin throughout the book illustrates this point. Caitlin’s resource teacher encourages her to try to make friends, but often when Caitlin does, the girls in her class react negatively toward her, illustrating the ease with which “normal” (even though no one is normal!) people can ignore those struggling with issues and simply go about their lives.

One of the students in Caitlin’s class is the cousin of the shooter, and people hate him and assign negative traits to him simply based on his blood. The author shows how easy it is for someone like him to be pigeonholed into an identity that is not even his.

I thought the book was going to be preachy, but it wasn’t. It dealt with the important issues in a neutral way, reminding me of The Grapes of Wrath’s Jim Casy, who says that there isn’t a right or a wrong; there is only what people do. This book shows both the “good” and “bad” aspects of characters, allowing the reader to see how we interact with each other and affect each other, even when we don’t intent to.

Since it’s a middle-grade read, it was a fast read for me, and I finished it in two sittings. I recommend this book for any teacher or anyone struggling to understand someone who doesn’t think in a conventional way.

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