Tag Archives: Kathryn Erskine

In a minority

I need to disagree with Simon Mason. At least, I think I do. His review in Saturday’s Guardian of Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine wasn’t terribly favourable. That’s fine. For all its merits, Mockingbird wasn’t my favourite aspie book, either. But as an aspie book, it is of interest to me. It has a job to do, and I believe it does.

I suspect Simon ‘only’ reviewed Mockingbird as he would any other book, and he’s probably right to do so. You shouldn’t be more positive about a novel featuring black characters only for that reason. Nor should you get a black reviewer in to ‘do it justice.’ So my feeling that the Guardian would have been better to ask Charlotte Moore is possibly also wrong.

But then I was wrong back in the infancy of Bookwitch when I produced a list – soon followed by a second list – of aspie books (and ultimately a blog in the Guardian). I imagined they were for normal people wanting to read up on aspies or enjoy a novel featuring people who are different in some respect. I felt there was more to aspie literature than Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident. There is, and if reviewers of aspie books will insist on harking back to Curious Incident and compare unfavourably, then I will end up resenting Mark’s wonderful novel.

My own epiphany back in 2007 was that aspies actively look for – and don’t often find – books about themselves. There is a need, and it needs to be filled. Mockingbird does that. So do many other aspie novels. They might not be great literature, because they are often written out of a sense of need and desperation. Unless we can commission top authors to write aspie books as though they were writing one of their ‘normal’ novels, we have to be happy with what we’ve got.

Simon’s is a neurotypical review. It doesn’t allow for the need for aspie books, nor that top writers don’t ‘go there.’ For children’s needs, and especially British children’s reading needs, I want a Jacqueline Wilson book with a main character who has Asperger Syndrome. Not the best friend or the sibling, but the main character.

Once or twice I have suggested to authors I admire that they’d do many readers a favour by incorporating aspie characters in their books. Usually the response is that they know too little (research!), and why don’t I write one myself? That, of course, is what many aspie authors have ended up doing.

Most of my aspie novels are American. Simon is right; there is a difference between our two countries. So far the US appears to have been better for aspie children. A recent suggestion for changing the law means that they will soon have it as bad as we do here.

There are one or two inaccuracies in Simon’s review. Maybe they don’t matter. Although I think they do. Too fast reading of the book is what I’m thinking. Caitlin isn’t into video games. She likes videos. The games were mentioned as part of her ‘conducting small talk.’ The way she talks about her brother is because her Dad fell to pieces and seems not to respond to her. Devon didn’t go to Caitlin’s school, so wasn’t killed there. The lack of colour could constitute a possible angle of aspie life. Caitlin is surprisingly good at drawing. I don’t think her drawing has to be the passion Simon expects it to be.

OK, I’m being petty. But I’d rather a book like this was pulled to shreds for the right reasons. In some ways I wonder why the Guardian bothered reviewing Mockingbird at all. I think it’s important. But I would rather they picked a book which a reviewer could wholeheartedly recommend. Until Carnegie level authors write aspie books, we need to nurture the ones we get. The books still have a value.

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Mockingbird

Caitlin is seeking closure. Her older brother has died and her Dad is upset all the time. She is missing her brother in a different way, but recognises that something needs to be done. When Caitlin hears about closure, she decides it’s what they need.

The problem is working out what closure is, exactly. 11-year-old Caitlin has Asperger Syndrome, which means that closure could be almost anything. But she starts working on it, despite her Dad not cooperating.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine is not just an aspie book, it’s also a dead child book, with the added drama of the death being a school shooting. While wondering if this is putting too much into one novel, I do recognise that this could happen. Aspie children will definitely be as much at risk of deaths in the family as anyone else. School shootings probably less so. I suspect Kathryn opted for this because she needed more than one victim for her plot.

If it weren’t for the fact that Kathryn has personal experience of Asperger Syndrome, I would have said Caitlin is almost too much of a textbook aspie. We are all different, though, so it’s not for me to say. Whereas Caitlin has some support at school, I feel the adults surrounding her are a little too stupid and uninformed, with every conversation and classroom situation peppered with phrases waiting to be misinterpreted by Caitlin’s literal thinking.

But, she goes about trying to improve the situation at home without help, understanding that a change is vital for her and her Dad’s continued lives together. And it having been a school shooting, there are important ideas for what it’s like from the other side’s point of view.

Life is not easy. But it can be made better.