Mockingbird – Kathryn Erskine
Caitlin is twice bereaved. Her mother died of cancer and now, horrifically, her elder brother, whom she adored, has died in a school shooting. The author wrote this book in the aftermath of real-life shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. She wanted to try to understand how families, in particular those with SEN children, dealt with this violent event. Caitlin is autistic and the story is about how she, her father, and the whole community are trying to heal after this terrible event.
In anticipation of Neurodiversity (ND) Week in March we’ve been reading books written by ND authors or about ND people to try to gain a greater understanding and be more empathic. So, what have I learnt from this book? It’s important to state that I really enjoyed this book hence it’s appearance here. There is lots to commend it. I loved the parallels with To Kill a Mockingbird, Caitlin and her brother’s favourite film and I found Caitlin to be a charming character. Her literal interpretation of the world was clearly written and reminded me that I should be more careful about the words I use and how easily things can be misinterpreted. As you might imagine I loved her obsession with the dictionary. She cuddled it like a teddy bear as it was a comfort to her. The dictionary helped her to find the meanings of concepts she couldn’t understand, like empathy and closure, and with the death of her brother, who had advised her how to “fit in”, it became even more important.
This is where I struggled with the book. It was written in 2009 and our knowledge of ND has changed. Caitlin sees a councillor in school and their goal is to try to make her more neurotypical. People find it hard to understand Caitlin, so she is expected to work extra hard to help them by making eye contact, showing more emotion and learning the skills necessary to make friends. We understand now that this is not how we help ND people.
However, the ending was emotional and satisfying; a grand, cinematic ending that reminded me of the final chapters of Wonder by RJ Palacio. So, despite some reservations it is a book worth reading. We have to be conscious of what Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of the single story”. If we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Every ND person is different and so we don’t become experts in ND from having read one book but it’s a start.
Find the Think Differently booklist in the library to help you understand more about Neurodiversity.