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Mockingbird Explores Grief and Growing Up With Asperger’s

April 22, 2010

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
published April 15, 2010

It looks like a one-winged bird crouching in the corner of our living room. Hurt. Trying to fly every time the heat pump turns on with a click and a groan and blows cold air onto the sheet and lifts it up and it flutters for just a moment and then falls down again. Still. Dead.

As she begins narrating this story, eleven-year old Caitlin looks at a chest sitting in a corner, covered by a sheet. Her older brother Devon had been building it as a scout project; he was working toward being an Eagle scout. But he never had a chance to finish it. He was killed by a fellow student at his middle school, a random act of violence that is sending ripples of grief and confusion through the community.

Caitlin has Asperger’s Syndrome, and she relied on Devon to help her navigate the world of neurotypical people. She is  a talented artist who draws the world in black and white, without any ambiguous shades of color. She also loves the dictionary, which clearly defines each word. People are not so clearly drawn, and their behavior is not so easy to define. Caitlin can’t “read” their facial expressions or the hidden layer of meaning behind their words. Now she is alone with a father who is grieving the loss of his son and trying to cope with her own unendurable loss.

With some guidance from her school counselor, Caitlin begins to try to make friends. Her early efforts are awkward and she’s often rejected by peers who are difficult to read and see her as “weird.” She eventually makes a few connections with other students. On this journey, she comes together with two kids who were touched by the same tragedy that tore her life apart: Michael, the son of a middle school teacher who died in the shooting, and Josh, whose cousin was the killer. In the midst of all this, Caitlin comes up with a plan to help herself and her father begin to heal.

Caitlin’s character is well drawn, and the author captured some of the subtler aspects of Asperger’s, such as her sensitivity to small sensations in her environment. This is shown in obvious ways, like her dislike of tags in clothes, but also in smaller ways, like her awareness of how the ground feels under her feet. Instead of noticing a person’s face, she tunes into smells, like the scent of  Dial body wash. Caitlin also likes to get in tight places to shut out sensory overload and feel secure.

Both young adult and middle grade readers, as well as adults, will enjoy this book. This is a short, quick read, but it’s a well crafted, moving story with a lot of heart. Mockingbird also offers one of the most natural, believable portrayals of an Aspergian child that I’ve seen in literature. I hope this novel, by fellow mom and Virginian Kathryn Erskine ;-), will enjoy a wide readership.

I borrowed this ARC from Around the World Tours.

Read More Reviews: Six Boxes of Books; YA Librarian Tales; Reflections With Coffee; Reading Nook; Abby the Librarian


14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2010 10:56 pm

    I had heard of this book somewhere previously, but I don’t remember now. Thanks for this beautiful review, I have to look this one up. This is a subject I am very interested in, and would love to read it.

  2. April 23, 2010 2:42 am

    For some reason, Asperger’s is such an interesting topic to read about. It’s such a simple condition, but it’s also complex and layered and these are real people, people who live with this.
    I’ve heard a few things about this book, and I’m so glad you liked it. I really hope I get the chance to read it, soon. :]

    • April 23, 2010 6:53 am

      All right, Robby.

      If you were in the story of Mockingbird, would you have Caitlin as a friend?

      A girlfriend?

      Do you think she would like you?

  3. April 23, 2010 7:00 am

    Also, I do wonder if the author had been reading some Donna Williams to create Caitlin.

    The black and white painting and the reading of the dictionary gave me a start.

    (Also remembering the connections I had with a Virginian mother-daughter pair on the spectrum in 2001-02.)

    Erskine is a hard name to remember how to spell.

    Great to see all the different perspectives and details on Mockingbird

    • April 23, 2010 7:00 pm

      Adelaide, I take it Mockingbird didn’t work for you? 🙂 I have never read any of Donna Williams’ work, though I believe Kathryn Erskine took her inspiration from her own Aspergian daughter. (And yes, I know the Donna Williams comment was probably tongue-in-cheek :-D)

      It seems to be very difficult to capture life on the spectrum, in literature, in a way that is authentic and not overdone. I thought the character in Mockingbird was better drawn than many I have seen. I LOVE comparing different points of view. Thanks for being part of the discussion!

      • April 24, 2010 5:23 am

        The Donna Williams comment came out that way, but no, it wasn’t intended that way.

        I have read Nobody Nowhere, Somebody Somewhere and Like Colour to the Blind as well as several of her textbooks, like Exposure Anxiety.

        And of course her blog.

        Probably one of my favourite autistic characters (probably not just one) are the ones in Curtis Sittenfeld’s The man of my dreams. Many of the boys were so heart-wrenchingly real. I could name many of their individual characteristics and things they did and enjoyed.

        Suzanne Crowley’s The very ordered existence of Merilee Marvelous might be a good recommendation.

        In some ways, cinema, art and music are good ways to recreate many autistic experiences.

        • April 24, 2010 5:34 pm

          Adelaide — thanks for the reading recommendations. I think my daughter has a copy of The Very Ordered Existence … though neither of us have read it. I’ve never heard of The Man of My Dreams but will look it up.

  4. April 25, 2010 2:08 am

    Hey Stephanie!
    This is a really wonderful review! I could definitely see myself enjoying this one. I love your new site-it’s awesome 😀

  5. April 25, 2010 4:27 am

    This sounds really interesting! For some reason, I thought this book would have something to do with Harper Lee’s story. I feel like the word “mockingbird,” particularly in a book title, is so tied into To Kill a Mockingbird that it is strange to me that this seems to have nothing to do with it…

    • April 25, 2010 1:42 pm

      Hi Aarti, The title actually is a reference to the Harper Lee novel, though I didn’t mention it in this review. The children in Mockingbird had seen the movie To Kill a Mockingbird and related to Jem and Scout. It really underscored the bond between Caitlin and Devon.

  6. April 25, 2010 8:35 am

    I think this is the first time I’ve been to a blog and wanted to buy a book on my first visit!

    My son has Aspergers so I am keen to read as much fiction containing Aspergers characters as possible – I’ve added this one to my wish list – thanks for drawing it to my attention!

  7. April 25, 2010 11:41 pm

    This is going straight on my wishlist, and this comment of yours cemented it – “Mockingbird also offers one of the most natural, believable portrayals of an Aspergian child that I’ve seen in literature.” Thanks for the wonderful review Stephanie!


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