From the back cover: Ten-year-old Caitlin’s world has always been black and white. Anything else was confusing; but her brother, Devon, helped her understand. Then tragedy struck, and now nothing makes sense. As a girl with Asperger’s syndrome, Caitlin turns to what she does know–textbooks and dictionaries. And after reading the definition of closure, she realizes that this is what everyone needs. In her search for closure, she discovers that black and white are surrounded by shades of gray, and that those are beautiful and necessary for healing.
mockingbird is about more than a girl with Asperger’s trying to mourn her brother’s death. It’s about her struggle to find her place in the world around her. It’s about her father, her teachers, and her classmates learning to understand her. And it’s about surviving grief–as individuals, as families, as friends, and as communities.
Erskine made three perfect choices to help readers connect with Caitlin:
Dialogue is set off by italics instead of quotation marks,
Caitlin capitalizes words that are important to her (not just proper nouns), and
Caitlin frequently lapses into run-on sentences.
What I want to talk about first is Caitlin’s judicious use of capitalization. She capitalizes words that are important to her–like Heart (“How can any word be more special than Heart?”)–and things she struggles to Get or Deal With. Most of what Caitlin works hard to Get are things like practicing accepted social behaviors (like Your Manners) and learning to read facial and social cues, but she is also determined to Get “how to experience an emotional conclusion to a difficult life event” (or Closure). She may not easily understand the rules everyone else does, but Caitlin has her own set of rules and the logic behind them is not difficult for readers to follow. And just because she doesn’t understand societal rules doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to find ways to connect with people. Like everyone, Caitlin wants to connect in ways that are comfortable for her.
But Caitlin is acutely aware of how many things she doesn’t Get. Her expression of dialogue through italics instead of traditional quotations marks underscores her sense of not-belonging. Though it takes a little effort to get accustomed to it, remembering that italics mean dialogue instead of internal thoughts is ultimately no barrier to understanding. The run-on sentences, though, are my favorite.
I’m a sucker for well-constructed and well-used run-on sentences, and Erskine is a master. When Caitlin wrestles with something that is too much for her–when she is overstimulated or too frustrated and confused by rules that make no sense to her–her narrative spills out of her in sentences that continue, ramping up in intensity as they go on and on. The lack of internal punctuation, coupled with the repeated use of and, serve to quicken the pace until readers can’t help but feel the build-up of emotion as it builds up within Caitlin and she wrestles with it until she can’t contain it any longer.
Honestly, I found it easy to connect with Caitlin, perhaps because of my own experience with grief. But I suspect even readers who haven’t yet experienced such a deep loss can connect with Caitlin. She has a way of stepping through her thoughts logically that will make sense to younger readers. In some ways, her reactions to Devon’s death remind me of the way Jess, in Bridge to Terabithia, runs away from home and throws his paint set away in the creek as he wrestles with the fresh pain of Leslie’s death. Sometimes grief is too big to hold inside. And if we try to hold it inside, it explodes anyway. The delayed explosion is often exponentially worse than if we’d just allowed the release to begin with. Caitlin understands this–she’s experienced it in the form of TRMs (Tantrum, Rage, Meltdowns). Her constant struggle to Deal With traditional societal expectations places Caitlin in the unique position of being able to help many of the people around her start their own journey for closure.
Because, as Caitlin already knows: none of us can do any of this all on our own.
For April 19: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli