Now that I have finished wiping away my tears, I can write about Mockingbird. Kathryn Erskine's Mockingbird is this year's National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature, and even though I've only read one other finalist book so far, I can't imagine a more deserving winner than this.
Mockingbird is about a girl named Caitlin whose brother Devon calls her Scout because he loves the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. (As one does.) Atticus tells his children, of course, what his father told him, that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, and his daughter Scout comes to understand that mockingbirds “don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Readers see early on that Caitlin isn't quite like other children, and it's not just because something has happened to her brother. Her brain doesn't work quite the same way that other people's do, and this book is the story of how Caitlin tries to learn how to live in the world and of how the world learns to let her.
Caitlin's brother Devon is gone. Before he dies, he explains this to her about To Kill a Mockingbird: "It's about people. You shouldn't hurt innocent people, Scout. That's what it means." He explains a lot of things to her, and now that he's not around, she is a bit more lost than usual.
There are many lessons that Caitlin's dad and her teachers try to impart to her. How to Look At The Person. How not to have a Tantrum Rage Meltdown. How to understand the emotions on the Facial Expressions Chart, to respect Personal Space, to Get It, to Deal With It, to Talk About It, to Work At It. To understand The Day Our Life Fell Apart.
Caitlin is an artist who prefers black and white to color. She gets along better with books than with people. "Books are not like people. Books are safe." She counts her dictionary, her TV, and her computer among her friends, but no one else. Her counselor, in the effort to help her make friends, sends her on an extra recess, the one with the younger kids, and she meets Michael, with whom it turns out she has something in common.
As part of Let's Make Friends, her counselor also teaches her about making eye contact with people, and how it's all about "finesse," explaining that it means "doing something tactfully and skillfully while dealing with a difficult situation." Caitlin thinks, "I'm surprised I'm only learning this word now. This word is all about me! It's what I'm trying to do every day to Deal With this difficult situation called life."
This is the little dedication line at the beginning of this book:
In hopes that we may all
understand each other better
There are many things that Caitlin doesn't innately understand. Empathy. Emotions. Figures of speech. Metaphor. But there are things she sees that maybe other people can't sometimes. Like when she looks at someone's face and can tell that his eyes and his mouth don't match. And when she knows to tell her dad what Devon would have told him: "You have to Work At It Dad. You have to try even if it's hard and you think you can never do it and you just want to scream and hide and shake your hands over and over and over."
One of the main things Caitlin tries to understand is Closure, which she looks up in her dictionary, of course: "the state of experiencing an emotional conclusion to a difficult life event." And she sets about looking for her own way to Closure. She and Michael talk about it on the playground.
"What's Closure anyway?"
"It helps you feel better after someone dies."
"Oh. Can I have some?"
"No because I don't have any and I don't know how to get it."
His head droops down. I think this means sad.
"But I'm going to find it."
"Will you share it with me?"
It might be a sin to kill a mockingbird and to kill a brother, but that doesn't mean that mockingbirds and brothers aren't killed. And of the many things Caitlin struggles to understand, that might be the hardest of all. But somehow people learn to stand what they'll never understand. Caitlin learns this, and she does it with humor and tears, wonderfully, heartbreakingly, and magnificently.
It doesn't come as a surprise to the reader when Caitlin figures out a way to try and get Closure, but it's still totally moving and cool when she does, and it's handled in a way that is totally real. You can work towards Closure. You will still be sad. That is just death, and that is just life.
And Caitlin starts to realize that “after the hurt I think maybe something good and strong and beautiful will come out of it." And maybe most importantly, she takes steps toward accepting that sometimes it's okay to draw and live in color.
This little book that I love knows that for Caitlin and her dad and their community -- and for each of us, no matter what that day is — nothing can change The Day Our Life Fell Apart. It also knows that, beautifully and mercifully and little by little, they -- and we all -- can work on Putting Our Life Back Together.
I love this book for reminding us of that.