Thursday, August 5, 2010

How Our Lives Might Be Different

Violence makes the news. We can’t escape it. When the media was limited to sources our parents could control, we were shielded. Not true today. School was once a place of safety. Also not true today. We are unable to give our kids the childhood we enjoyed.

Author Kathryn Erskine was devastated by the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. As she struggled to deal with this violent event that happened in her home state, she wondered how community and family–-particularly families with special needs children-–would cope with this tragedy. How, she wondered, might our lives be different if we understood each other better?

During the days after the shooting at Virginia Tech, following the story on television, watching the families gather on the campus and cling to each other for support, I wondered how they would survive the sadness of the days and nights to come after these bright, shining lives were taken from their midst so senselessly. Of course, children with special needs would suffer trauma, but all children, siblings of those shot, and all parents, relatives, and friends would never come to complete closure without a great deal of emotional work.

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine, Philomel Books, 2010.

Caitlin is a 10 year old who has Asperger’s Syndrome. In her world, everything is black and white, and anything in between is confused and confusing. At home, it’s just Caitlin, her dad, and her brother, Devon, who is good at explaining things to Caitlin. Devon understands Caitlin’s way of thinking. He’s her rock. And then a school shooting takes him away.

Chapter One is titled: The Day Our Life Fell Apart

Caitlin’s father cries a lot. Caitlin wants to help, but she doesn’t know how. When she hears that all the families who suffered loss are seeking closure, she looks up the definition of closure in the dictionary and decides her family needs some, too.

In some ways, Caitlin’s syndrome is like a protective cover. She is trying to learn the skills of relating to others. Her way of expressing herself seems rude and insensitive, but when the author takes us inside Caitlin’s head, it’s much easier to understand why she reacts the way she does. Language, for one, is filled with double meanings. Literal meanings can be most confusing, even when you turn to a dictionary, as Caitlin does.

Caitlin’s coping mechanisms are based a lot on what Devon told her. "Stuffed animaling" is the way she takes her mind away from stressful situations. She gets a recess feeling in her tummy when she feels as if something bad is about to happen.

After the school shooting, Caitlin meets first grader Michael whose mother was shot and she shares a school with Josh, whose cousin was the shooter at the middle school Caitlin will attend next year. How does she get along with these people as everyone is trying to come to closure?

Caitlin’s counselor is very real, not perfect, but human and trying hard to be patient with the special needs children she counsels. The reader sees progress in action when these children recognize and react appropriately to a hurtful comment made by the PE teacher.

It’s almost as if the school shooting brought emotions to the surface. School personnel take this chance to develop understanding and kindness. If only all fifth graders could be well grounded in how to care about the feelings of others by the time they are launched into the outer space of middle school.

Caitlin’s story will enlighten those of you who wonder what Asperger’s Syndrome is. Chances are, you already know someone with Asperger’s, maybe several people. They will come to mind as you read Mockingbird. You will want to read this with your children and talk about it together.

Caitlin is caught up in reading To Kill a Mockingbird which just celebrated 50 years of making us think. Caitlin will make you think, too.


  1. One of my closest friends has a daughter with Asperger's. It took 12 years and many doctors, drugs and some drastic measures to finally get the correct diagnosis. I'm going to send her this.

  2. I loved being inside Caitlin's head and I loved emerging more fully into the world with her.

  3. ARGH!!! I don't think the library will let me compile as long a wish list of books as this. Joan, you do a wonderful job of widening my world, bringing me new books to read.

  4. Oh, if only we had time to read those thousands, yes thousands, of good books published every year!

  5. Wow, I feel choked up just reading ABOUT the book. Some books, I've learned, I have to read when I'm in the right "place" emotionally. This sounds like one of them! I had seen a lot of press about it so I'm glad to now know what it's about...


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