Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. 2010. New York: Philomel Books.
Genre: First-person novel
Almost everything in the life of fifth grader Caitlin is difficult–or different. Her older brother Devon was killed in a school shooting. He was her anchor to reality, the person who helped her figure out what to wear, say, do, and be. She’s been without her mother since the age of three–and her father, overcome by grief at the loss of his son, is falling apart. Though he tries to help, Caitlin and her father do not communicate well. To complicate matters, Caitlin has Asberger’s syndrome. She sees the world and the healing process (following Devon’s death) a little differently, and coping with the well-intentioned visits and words from friends and neighbors is hard and confusing for her. She doesn’t know what she is supposed to feel–or even how to articulate what she does feel. Her responses to others–often perceived as socially inappropriate–are very hard on her dad. The school counselor suggests that Devon is still with her–only in a “different way.” But Caitlin doesn’t want him in a different way. She wants him in the old way, making her hot chocolate and popcorn, laughing and teasing, playing games, helping her deal with this world that is so complicated and hard to decipher. She also doesn’t want to reach out to “outgoing” friends who do not understand her–and she is adamant about it: “I don’t like very outgoing. Or efFUSive. Or EXtroverted. Or geGARious. Or any of those words that mean their loudness fills up my ears and hurts and their face and waving arms invade my Personal Space and their constant talking sucks all the air out of the room until I think I’m going to choke” (44). Caitlin is a brilliant artist–a fact she fully recognizes. Though emotional attachments are challenging for her, she is intellectually a step ahead of many people around her. Perhaps her artistry will help her to find Closure–a word she has recently learned holds significance for adults, and might hold an answer for her. But–how nto get there?
In the Classroom
- Asberger’s syndrome is quite common. Chances are that one of your students or a family member is affected–or that at least one student has known someone who is. You may wish to have a preliminary discussion about some of the characteristics of Asberger’s. In what ways do people with Asberger’s see the world differently? What things might be more difficult for them–or easier? What parts of school might they especially enjoy or not like? What would make them uncomfortable? And how can other people make life easier for them?
- Notice the book’s title. What might be the significance of this title? Why does the pronunciation of this word appear on the cover? (Return to these questions after reading the book to see what new insights your writers may have.)
- This book has a very powerful lead, and you may want to take time to discuss it before moving on. It begins, “It looks like a one-winged bird crouching in the corner of our living room.” In a sense the whole first paragraph is a lead–and in another sense, the whole first chapter is a lead since it sets the stage for the book. What is the tone of that first paragraph–and chapter? What does it tell us about the kind of book this will be? Notice the chapter title: “Devon’s Chest.” What is the significance of the word “chest”? Does it have more than one meaning here?
- As you share the chapters that follow, continue to talk about the chapter titles and their significance. Also talk about Caitlin’s emotional side. She says emotion is not her forte–but is that completely true? Do your students sense there are things Caitlin feels deeply?
- If you have a document projector (See our recent post on technology: 12/12/10), use it to show the words that appear in capitals: The Day Our Life Fell Apart, Look At The Person, Get It, Deal With It, Start A Conversation, Let’s Talk About It, and others. Why does the author put these words in capital letters? Why are these particular expressions important in Caitlin’s life? Suppose your students were to put certain words or expressions from their own lives into capital letters. What would they be? This is a good subject for freewriting in journals–and may lead some writers into personal essays. You may wish to share a few phrases that would be significant for you as a way of kicking off the writing.
- Notice how uncomfortable Caitlin often becomes when people ask her questions. Why would this be? What sorts of questions make most of us uncomfortable?
- A significant portion of the book is devoted to Caitlin’s search for something called Closure. What does this word mean to your students? (Return to this discussion at the end of the book: Does Caitlin find the closure she seeks?)
- Notice that word definitions are important–to Caitlin herself and to the story. Her counselor and teacher help her by looking words up in the dictionary or offering dictionary definitions. But is a dictionary enough to teach us about words like emotion or finesse or closure? Or do we learn these definitions from life itself?
- Caitlin’s best friend at school is Michael, a first grader. Talk about this. Does this friendship seem unusual to your students–as it does to Caitlin’s father? Why do Caitlin and Michael get along well? Why does Caitlin continually refer to Michael’s “Bambi eyes”?
- In what ways does Caitlin change by the end of the book? What clues does the author give us to show that Caitlin may have achieves “closure”? (Closure is also a good writing topic. Your writers may wish to write their own definitions or provide an example of closure in their own lives. This need not deal with the death of a loved one. It could deal with resolution of any problem, large or small.)
- People who have read To Kill a Mockingbird will pick up many allusions to Harper Lee’s novel. But if your students are too young to have read Lee’s book or seen the film, you may wish to discuss it briefly, particularly in terms of the characters Atticus and Scout and the significance of the title. This will make the ending of Erskine’s novel far more meaningful for them.
- After reading the book and explaining the references to Harper Lee’s novel, return to the title for Erskine’s book. What is its significance? Could it refer to more than one thing? Who is the mockingbird in this story?
- Kathryn Erskine accomplishes something remarkable in this novel: writing in the voice of a young girl with Asberger’s. You may wish to share the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, in which Erskine explains what motivated her to write Caitlin’s story. She says, “We all want to be heard, to be understood.” Challenge your writers to think of someone in their lives who “wants to be heard” and to write at least one paragraph in the voice of that character. Share the results–and write with them so you can share, too.
Visit Kathryn Erskine at www.kathyerskine.com