Erskine, Kathryn (2011). Mockingbird. New York: Puffin Books.
After more than a quarter of a century teaching special education, my favorite population to work with remains those kids with “autism spectrum disorder”. Over the years the American Psychiatric Association has redefined exactly what this includes, and with the publication of the DSM-V in 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was no longer its own, separate category. While similar to autism in many ways, I personally find its characteristics to be different enough to warrant its own diagnosis, and anticipate that some day in the future, it will have this once again.
In Mockingbird Kathryn Erskine weaves two circumstances close to her heart into a memorable story for upper elementary students: Asperger’s syndrome, which her own daughter was diagnosed with, and in memory of the Virginia Tech massacre, school shootings. Told in first person narrative by ten-year old Caitlin, who has Asperger’s, the story is propelled forward by her search for closure after her older brother is gunned down in his middle school. With the completion of a project her brother had started she, her dad, and the entire community step closer to the healing they so desperately need.
Aspergers is characterized by a disconnect in emotional understanding and consequently, social skills. Caitlin has difficulty “stepping into someone else’s shoes”. She is extremely literal and likes her world to be well-defined. Even when drawing, which she does exceeding well, her pictures need to be done in black and white. Very bright, Caitlin is in a regular fifth grade classroom, preparing to transition to middle school, learning to make friends, and coping with extreme sensitivities to sensory stimuli.
Reading as Caitlin can be a little tricky if Aspergers is new to you. When she speaks there is usually less inflection than other characters in the dialogue. While suitable as an independent reader, reading aloud the first chapter or two may help give your kids a firmer grasp on her characterization, and will provide an opportunity to discuss the two issues Erskine is addressing more directly.
This National Book Award winner is a valuable book for teaching about perspective, disabilities, and empathy.