Mockingbird is the story of Caitlin, a ten-year-old girl with Asberger’s Syndrome. Before the beginning of the novel, Caitlin’s brother Devon is killed in a middle school shooting. Caitlin already has difficulty expressing her emotions in a way others can understand, and accurately interpreting other people’s emotions. Because of her grief, Caitlin must try harder than ever to communicate and form relationships, or risk being overcome by her own sorrow and confusion.
Last week, Mockingbird won the National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature. I watched the ceremony here (fast forward to 1:35:39 to watch the Young People’s Literature award). The author, Kathryn Erskine, made a nice speech upon collecting her award. I’ve never seen an award show for books, and it was pretty exciting. It must be fun to be in that room with a bunch of people who are so in love with reading.
Erskine did a wonderful job of making Caitlin accessible. I imagine this was not an easy feat. Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders is on the rise among children, but it remains perplexing and mysterious to doctors, educators, and parents. One of the aspects of Mockingbird that I felt was the most successful was in portraying how well-meaning adults often communicated with Caitlin in a way that she couldn’t clearly understand; since we see the world through Caitlin’s eyes, we recognize the miscommunication, while the person speaking with Caitlin does not.
Kathryn Erskine is a subtle storyteller, one of those authors who are doing all kinds of genius things that you can’t really identify because they’re so seamless. I learned a couple good lessons from this book. In my own writing, I have wondered about what time period to set a novel—should you buffer the main events with a bunch of set-up or risk jarring the reader by dropping them straight into the story? The beginning of Mockingbird is after many important events: the school shooting, Devon’s funeral, the death of Caitlin’s mother. The reader is dropped into Caitlin’s life at the ideal time, when she is growing most as a person. Erskine could have done ten pages of introduction establishing Devon as an important character, then written the school shooting scene, Devon’s funeral, and then finally arriving at the place Erskine decided to start the novel—but she didn’t. She gave the reader no superfluous information. We get about two weeks with Caitlin, and the author made sure it was the most important two weeks of Caitlin’s life.
Setting the story after the events of Devon’s death establishes a very important precedent: the story is not about death, but what comes after. There is no depiction of the shooting scene, and we don’t get any specific information about the perpetrators or the logistics of the attack. This seems fairly deliberate on the part of the author. This book is simply not about a school shooting. It’s about grief and growth and overcoming obstacles and becoming more than we ever believed we could be.
Congratulations to Kathryn Erskine on her National Book Award!