Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

I am going to exercise my freedom of speech and declare I did not like this novel. Largely, this is due to personal taste which I will attempt to explain. I feel like this is a book people feel inclined to praise and disinclined to criticize because of it’s subject matter and seal of approval from the National Book Foundation. However, I am at a loss to understand why this book won the National Book Award (2010). I mean no disrespect to the author whose intentions with the book are clearly and admirably stated in the author's note. I just didn't like her book and this is, as always, my honest and subjective opinion.

While looking at the National Book Award’s description page it is incredibly vague as to guidelines for choosing finalists and winners: “They [the judges] may arrive at these choices using whatever criteria they deem appropriate, as long as they do not conflict with the official Award guidelines.” Those guidelines being that the book is by an American author and that the entrance fee was paid. Yet, the award is known for choosing “high” literature which brings into question the criteria for being literature. That may be another discussion but it’s unavoidable for me when thinking about MockingbirdDoes a book's well-timed and admirable theme determine if it's literature? I should hope it is only one factor among many equally important factors. 

For me, the dominant theme was Caitlyn’s Asberger’s Syndrome and it’s sub theme, school violence (a shooting). It was all too much. A school shooting which killed the sibling of young child with Asperger’s who is already motherless with a father lost in grief required too much willful suspension of disbelief for me. This is realistic fiction and I wanted more realism. I felt Erskine wanted to cover too many big and specific subjects and did the sub themes little justice. 

The prose, the first person narrative, was at times plain and at others too forceful. I never felt moved only informed. I want literature to move me. And not just (attempt) to move me to tears. The text felt self-conscious. I felt Erskine’s intense and anxious desire to be respectful and literary (so many motifs beating me over the head) was thrust at me. I felt manipulated as a reader and that made me resistant to the novel. I felt blatantly asked to feel something that the novel could not naturally draw out.

I appreciate what the novel attempts to do especially in regards to raising children’s awareness (and adults’) to the complexities of Asperger’s Syndrome. I feel if Erskine would have kept to this one subject and left the school shooting and motherlessness out of the picture (and saved for other books) this book would have worked better. There needed to be a better balance of theme, plot and prose. I hope the panel that chose this book as the award winner at least had a lengthy debate over it. It’s too bad the public isn't privy to that conversation. I truly feel that the choice of theme is what made this book win the medal. It's a popular medical topic and little addressed in children's literature. I am of the firm opinion, however, that choice of a popular serious subject matter or new subject matter should not carry so much weight when awarding prizes. 

Mockingbird is bold in its scope and gravity of its subjects. It has been well received and praised, loved by many, and I am happy for those who've had a great reading experience. I just did not. Tell me, have you ever found yourself resistant to a novel? A time when you knew a book wanted a certain response from you as a reader that you just couldn't muster?

Publisher: Philomel Books/Penguin, 2010.     Pages: 235
Rating: 2 Stars     Source: Public Library


  1. Wow - what a review! I love it! I just read the whole thing twice and this is still my favorite sentence, "I am going to exercise my freedom of speech and declare I did not like this novel." I thought you did a fabulous job explaining your own personal opinion. Wish I could give my 2 cents, but I haven't even read it! This review though? Refreshing.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Katie! Sometimes I don't connect with a book and tried to explain why it happened here.