by Rebecca Erskine (2010)
Kathryn Erskine starts Mockingbird with the epigraph, “In hopes that we may all understand each other better.”
If you want to help your students better understand each other, too, then Mockingbird is a prudent title for you. The protagonist, Caitlin is a beautiful, spirited, brilliant fifth-grader with Asperger’s. She possesses abundant strengths and resources to help her manage the many personal challenges she faces. Middle school readers will count themselves lucky to improve theirselves daily and offer their gifts to the world as gracefully as Caitlin. Caitlin’s example is the essence of Mockingbird.
Caitlin faces the tremendous losses of both her mom (years ago) and her best friend and brother, Devon (very recently from a school shooting). Sadly, Mockingbird remains a very timely book on a subject that remains sensitive.
Caitlin is a convincing narrator because author Kathryn Erskine has an established background with Asperger’s. Caitlin is often confused or unsure of what people in her life are trying to communicate. She knows that she doesn’t always “get it.” She develops strategies, like regularly consulting the dictionary, to try harder to get what other people mean. But she knows that even the dictionary can’t always explain what other people are thinking or feeling.
For example, Caitlin focuses intently on the weighty word ‘closure’ – seeking it for herself, her Dad, and her entire community. As she ponders its meaning, Erskine gives the reader an accessible angle through which to interpret a world tinged with Asperger’s. Caitlin is an observant and talented artist, but she draws only in black and white, finding color to be too difficult to navigate and understand.
As a student with Asperger’s Syndrome, Caitlin has both social and sensory challenges. She cannot read people, even though she can read and retain book information well beyond her grade level. She has cheat sheets for reading emotions, she tries not to be around loud sounds and bright lights, and she is extremely challenged at making friends of her own age or fitting in with her peers. But she still makes other people’s days brighter and has a tender heart for others. She stands up for people that are being treated poorly. She solves problems. She even helps her Dad, struggling with his own grief, to move through his pain and feel better.
Through Caitlin, Kathryn Erskine offers valuable lessons for all readers. Mockingbird is a perfect book to inspire middle school students to see and solve problems through the eyes and heart and mind of someone with different challenges, and a different perspective, than themselves. And that makes Mockingbird a perfect selection for One School, One Book for middle schools.