This was one of the spaces I was most interested to get to in the Diversity December Bingo. I haven’t read a lot of books about neurodiverse characters, and I thought it was time to change that with Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird.
The main reason why I chose this book is because the main character is Caitlin, a fifth-grader who has Asperger’s. I don’t think I have ever come across a book about a girl with Asperger’s before – let alone one that is from her point-of-view. Now, I do not have Asperger’s myself, so I’m just going to link you to disability in kid lit’s review here, which makes a huge number of important points about ableist microaggressions within the novel. It is clear that Erskine is not on the autism spectrum. In her author’s note, she mentions that her daughter has been diagnosed, and that she wanted to represent girls with Asperger’s in her fiction. But yeah, I was made uncomfortable by some of the implications made in the novel. Caitlin is often forced to look into her therapist’s eyes, which I know is something that many people in the autism spectrum find difficult. There is also the idea that she must learn how to empathise, rather than how to display her empathy. This is obviously implying that people who have Asperger’s simply do not know how to empathise, and that made my jaw drop in shock. Just – WHAT?!
Also, the ending is way too neat – not only in its representation of Asperger’s, but on a structural level, too. Caitlin suddenly Gets It (i.e. what her father needs from her emotionally). I’m not going to lie, this made me cringe a bit, because it was way too pat and the core conflict of the novel was too easily fixed. This could have been such an interesting novel if Caitlin hadn’t just Got It, but rather slowly began to display the empathy she felt for her father. I understand that the book was written for a middle-grade/young adult audience, but a key emotional subtlety was missing for all levels.
However, I thought that there were a couple of interesting points in the novel – mainly how Caitlin thinks about the world around her. She capitalises the concepts that she’s trying to learn – including Minding Your Manners, and Looking At The Person. This really helped me to understand her way of seeing the world, and I thought it was done quite well. Finally, what I did not realise is that the central conflict – the death of Caitlin’s brother, Devon – was based upon the Virginia Tech mass school shooting. I…was not expecting this. The way that Erskine drew the community together in their grief was incredibly moving.
Overall – I’m not going to beat around the bush. I think this book was written for neurotypicals. I was quite disappointed in it, and I hope that the next book I read that features neurodiversity will be better.