soup of the day: mockingbird by kathryn erskine

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird)

 photo by fallen..angel.

Today we’re celebrating one of the finest, most praise-worthy middle grade novels of the year, Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird (Philomel, 2010)!

It was released just about a month ago following lots of Newberyish buzz, but because of the Poetry Month Potluck, I was unable to serve soup on its official pub date. I simply couldn’t let another day go by without expressing my enthusiasm and full-out love for this incredibly moving literary gem.

Ten-year-old Caitlin is trying to cope with the loss of her beloved brother Devon, who was killed in a school shooting in their small Virginia town — hard enough for any motherless child, but uniquely challenging and complicated for one who has Asperger’s. A talented artist, she sees the world and processes events differently, with her literal mind, black and white thinking, impaired emotional reciprocity and poor social skills. 

Everyone has his/her own of way of grieving, and the journey to healing is usually assuaged by the comfort of others and the ability to share the anger, fear, sadness, and deep sense of loss. But Caitlin is wired differently, cannot give or receive consolation as others do, and she had always depended on Devon for guidance on just about everything (how to interpret facial cues, what’s appropriate behavior in certain situations, etc.). With him gone, she must somehow find her own way. Her school counselor helps her develop empathy and learn how to make new friends, and ultimately, Caitlin is able to achieve a degree of closure for both herself and her father.

The hallmark of this book is Caitlin’s distinctive voice, which gives the reader full access to her thought processes and curious brand of logic. We climb into her skin and walk in her shoes, perhaps understanding for the first time what it really must be like for an Asperger’s child, with all its frustrations and ongoing challenges. It is fascinating, poignant, often heartbreaking, sometimes even funny, to witness and learn the reasons for Caitlin’s atypical behaviors, such as loud talking, lack of tact, matter-of-fact attitude, repetitive motor behaviors like hand shaking or sleeve sucking, avoidance of eye contact, etc. The longer we linger in Caitlin’s world, the more we empathize with her, the less judgmental we are, and ironically enough, much of what she is unable to feel, we feel for her.

Caitlin wants to finish building Devon’s Eagle Scout Project (an oak chest), to find closure (photo by K 0).

Erskine wrote Mockingbird, “In hopes that we may all understand each other better.” She has brilliantly achieved this aim on so many levels — for all the characters in the story, and for all the readers who’ve read, raved about, and embraced this small masterpiece. I especially loved Kathy’s use of powerful imagery, touches of humor to temper serious subject matter, her focus on promoting tolerance and acceptance, and her supreme example of “showing, not telling.” Of course I also loved the allusions to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Devon’s nickname for Caitlin is “Scout”), and will forever remain awe-struck at the novel’s acute emotional resonance and astute exploration of several far-reaching themes.

 photo from

Mockingbird was inspired by the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, as well as Kathy’s teenage daughter, who has Asperger’s. Though the entire nation was devastated by the deadliest shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history, it remains especially horrific for us Virginians. Thank you, Kathy, for creating something big, strong, beautiful and important — for giving us much needed, newfound understanding and compassion as we try to make sense of the tragedy, and for reminding us that the most terrible of circumstances often presents the greatest opportunity for spiritual growth.

Mockingbird has received *starred* reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, is an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee, and is on the Summer 2010 Indie Kids Next List. I whole heartedly give this must-read my highest five spoon rating!

And now, for the soup! Fear not the gummy worms, for they are Caitlin’s favorite candy, something she gives to her new friend Michael, whose mother was also killed in the shooting. These scenes are tender, tentative, luminous, heart-opening. So, dip your spoons in celebration of this fabulous book and let’s honor good friends! Congratulations, Kathy!!

Today’s Special: Friendship Soup (will inspire you to live your life in color).

To go with the soup, some pizza with extra cheese, because at Caitlin’s house, Thursday night was pizza night.

photo by Mr. Ducke.

Now, since Kathy loves chocolate, we are happy to oblige with three big servings and a big hip hip hooray! Let’s start with some fudge brownies,

photo by Reel Lady.

move on to chocolate macarons,

photo by honey drizzle.

and top if off with homemade chocolate peanut butter cups:

 photo by Reel Lady.

In honor of Devon, some Eagle Scout cookies,

 photo by Brenda’s Cakes – Ohio.

and a couple of handy tools for building wooden chests:

 photos by Whipped Bakeshop.

Now that you’re all sugared up, race over to your local indie or fave online bookseller to score your very own copy of Mockingbird. Wear something purple since it’s Caitlin’s favorite color, and when you approach the cashier, Look At The Person with your best facial expression and tell him/her how much you appreciate their service and Finesse. Don’t be surprised if you get a discount! ☺


♥ Kathy Erskine’s official website and blog.

♥ Interviews: The Furnace (Madelyn Rosenberg), Publisher’s Weekly (Sue Corbett), Six Boxes of Books (Kathleen McDade), Novel Anecdotes (Holly Schindler), Amy Brecount White.

♥ Blog Reviews: Kids Lit, Book Page, Patchwork of Books, Reading Nook.

♥ Discussion Guide at publisher’s website.

Mockingbird was featured as Fiction of the Month in the May issue of The 4:00 Book Hook newsletter. You can still subscribe by sending an email to: thebookhook (at) gmail (dot) com. (Type “Subscribe” in the subject line.)


MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine
published by Philomel, April 2010
Fiction for ages 10+, 224 pp.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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