My local library doesn’t have an available copy of Harper Lee’s new/old Go Set a Watchman available just yet, so I chose a novel that I first learned about when taking a graduate level course in improving reading in secondary schools, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. The premise in this YA novel is that our narrator, Caitlyn, is a fifth-grader with Asperger’s Syndrome. I have a family member with a similar diagnosis, so this novel interests me on more than one level. Caitlyn had been quite dependent on an older brother, Devon, but he is not with her any longer. For anyone who does not know, the vast majority of symptoms of Asperger’s are associated with communications skills. Caitlyn exhibits many of the classic symptoms, but there is both humor and pathos in her approach to life. Her father seems to want to help her and connect with her, but he is suffering from a different malady. As the exposition unfolds, the reader learns that Devon was killed in a school shooting and their mother died of cancer a couple of years prior to the events of the novel. So the father is reeling emotionally, and Caitlyn is struggling with adjusting to these losses and with trying to develop empathy for other people. Other players in this novel include young Caitlyn’s teacher, counselor, and her fellow students. Try as she might, Caitlyn has trouble “getting” what others seem to understand with little trouble. This, too, is typical for Aspies.
Mockingbird derives its title from the many references to the movie/book To Kill a Mockingbird, and I do not believe that the novel would resonate nearly as well if the reader had not either seen TKAM or read it. But, with most readers knowing a bit about the famous story by Harper Lee, it is fairly safe to say that most readers will “get” the references. Indeed, I really, really enjoyed the novel, but I did need some tissue toward the end— it is that kind of story.
Reading YA lit is more and more common these days, because big publishing is far more open to publishing those stories. Getting a contract is rather difficult for new writers of adult fiction, but YA sells well, so it is becoming a crowded field. I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers, but I do want to encourage fans of TKAM to read Mockingbird. Although it could be read by upper elementary on up, it is a touching story for readers of any age.