Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

MOCKINGBIRD is due out April 15, 2010, and is currently available for pre-order. This review is part of an ARC tour from Around the World Tours.

Caitlin is a ten-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome. She’s recently lost her older brother, and she lives with only her father (her mother also died, of cancer, several years previously). Devon's room, all of his things, and his unfinished Eagle Scout project are still in the house, and Caitlin and her father are still haunted by The Day Our Life Fell Apart. This book is about Caitlin’s search for Closure for herself and for her father.

Author Kathryn Erskine does a beautiful job of immersing the reader in what it is like to be Caitlin. You’ve heard that an author should show, not tell? This book is a perfect example; rather than telling us what it’s like to have Asperger’s syndrome, Erskine puts the reader squarely inside Caitlin, while also showing us the reactions of people around her.

I also like that neither Caitlin nor the other characters are perfect. They are flawed human beings that the reader can relate to. While understanding Caitlin’s point of view did make me sympathetic toward her, there were also times when I could sympathize more with the other characters’ frustrations with her! But those other characters, especially the adults, also have flaws. They don’t always Get It when Caitlin is trying to communicate. Caitlin’s father sometimes behaves selfishly in his own grief.

My ten-year-old daughter also read MOCKINGBIRD and enjoyed it. While she couldn’t tell me anything in particular that she liked, I can tell you that she read it in one sitting and complained when I interrupted her reading for dinner.

I'm predicting that MOCKINGBIRD will be one of the best middle-grade/YA novels of the year. It’s already been nominated for the ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list. I think it’s really a middle-grade novel (the publisher has it marked for ages 10 and up), although young adults will enjoy it, too.

According to Erskine, this book was inspired both by her daughter, who has Asperger’s syndrome, and by her own reaction to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.

“In the aftermath of this tragedy, Kathryn was driven to understand how community and family – particularly families with special needs children – dealt with this violent event, and how our lives might be different if we understood each other better.”

Ms. Erskine was kind enough to answer a few questions for me by email; here is the interview.

You really immerse us in how Caitlin, a girl with Asperger's syndrome, sees, hears, and feels the world. I know you have a daughter with Asperger's, but did you do anything else to help you get inside that point of view?

Yes, I read LOTS of books on Asperger's, researched, observed, took workshops, etc. I do that in all my writing. I have two dozen books and maps of Medieval England and Scotland on my desk right now for one novel, and all kinds of details of my own town's recent history, including first-person accounts, scattered around my feet for another novel. It's important to me to be able to tell a story as authentically as possible.

My ten-year-old daughter also read MOCKINGBIRD. She would like to know why the dialogue is written in italics, instead of with quotation marks.

I did that because my own daughter had no use for conventions like punctuation, spelling, or capitalization norms. I wanted to mirror the way she described her world as well as how she saw her world. In fact, I started writing the manuscript with random capital letters in the middle of sentences and lower case letters at the beginning of sentences but it really was too confusing for most of us to be able to follow! I compromised by using no quotations and no punctuation except periods (and commas only to introduce dialog). I felt that making it a little bit difficult or odd for the reader would help bring home the point that people with Asperger's experience differences in every aspect of their lives.

Which is your favorite scene in the book?

That's a tough one, but I think it's the scene in the cafeteria when Caitlin is trying to make friends. It shows how awkwardly she comes across but how difficult it is for her to communicate the way kids generally do.

You were a lawyer before you were an author. When and how did you know you wanted to switch?

My mother died when she was right around retirement age. She'd always wanted to write and she wrote beautifully. I'd always thought I'd wait until retirement to write seriously. I realized that if you really want to do something, you should do it right away -- like today.

What are you working on now?

I just finished the edits on my next book, THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF MIKE, which comes out in the summer of 2011. I'm working on several projects: a middle grade novel dealing with endemic racism, a middle grade adventure set in the Middle Ages, and a contemporary novel about a girl and neighborhood adjusting to tough economic times--as well as a picture book and a novel for adults. There's so much to write about and I have at least a half dozen more partially written novels--I just haven't figured out how to squeeze more hours in the day!

Kathryn Erskine is also the author of Quaking. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband, two children, and dog Maxine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Top 100 Children's Novels from Fuse #8

NYPL children's librarian Betsy Bird is counting down the Top 100 Children's Novels on her blog, Fuse #8. I really wanted to see a simple list all in one place; figuring others would like the same, I typed it in here. Comments are turned off on this post, as it is for information only. To discuss, please visit Fuse #8.

1. Charlotte's Web
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
5. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
6. Holes
7. The Giver
8. The Secret Garden
9. Anne of Green Gables
10. The Phantom Tollbooth
11. The Westing Game
12. The Hobbit
13. Bridge to Terabithia
14. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
15. Because of Winn-Dixie
16. Harriet the Spy
17. Maniac Magee
18. Matilda
19. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
20. Tuck Everlasting
21. The Lightning Thief
22. The Tale of Despereaux
23. Little House in the Big Woods
24. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
25. Little Women
26. Hatchet
27. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
28. A Little Princess
29. The Dark Is Rising
30. Winnie-the-Pooh
31. Half Magic
32. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
33. James and the Giant Peach
34. The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963
35. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
36. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
37. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
38. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
39. When You Reach Me
40. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
41. The Witch of Blackbird Pond
42. Little House on the Prairie
43. Ramona the Pest
44. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
45. The Golden Compass
46. Where the Red Fern Grows
47. Bud, Not Buddy
48. The Penderwicks
49. Frindle
50. Island of the Blue Dolphins
51. The Saturdays
52. The Invention of Hugo Cabret
53. The Wind in the Willows
54. The BFG
55. The Great Gilly Hopkins
56. Number the Stars
57. Ramona Quimby, Age 8
58. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
59. Inkheart
60. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
61. Stargirl
62. The Secret of the Old Clock
63. Gone-Away Lake
64. A Long Way from Chicago
65. Ballet Shoes
66. Henry Huggins
67. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
68. Walk Two Moons
69. The Mysterious Benedict Society
70. Betsy-Tacy
71. The Bad Beginning
72. My Father's Dragon
73. My Side of the Mountain
74. The Borrowers
75. Love That Dog
76. Out of the Dust
77. The City of Ember
78. Johnny Tremain
79. All-of-a-Kind Family
80. The Graveyard Book
81. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
82. The Book of Three
83. The Thief
84. The Little White Horse
85. On the Banks of Plum Creek
86. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
87. The View from Saturday
88. The High King
89. Ramona and Her Father
90. Sarah, Plain and Tall
91. Sideways Stories from the Wayside School
92. Ella Enchanted
93. Caddie Woodlawn
94. Swallows and Amazons
95. Pippi Longstocking
96. The Witches
97. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
98. Children of Green Knowe
99. The Indian in the Cupboard
100. The Egypt Game