Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Books by Kathryn Erskine

Mockingbird, 2010

This book arose out of the author's attempt to see the world as a person with Aspergers' and in response to the emotional upheaval of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2009. It's set as a youth novel.

I found it to be a delightful book that ultimately filled me with hope about the human spirit. Ironically, it is a person who struggles with emotions, both understanding and expressing them, who brings others around her into completeness. The main character is an elementary school student with Aspergers who has just lost her brother in a tragic school shooting. (Heavy material for a youth novel but very interesting!) Caitlin, the young girl, is struggling to understand her own process while also being totally confused by the emotional processes of others around her. She is literal and very logical, hallmarks of the this type of thinking. At times her responses to others leave you cringing but she also has a well developed sense of her own limitations. Often she knows she doesn't "GET IT" but the level of insight she demonstrates is so very humbling to the reader. Caitlin is perceived as "limited" by the world because she thinks a different way, sees the world through a unique lens. But her perspective allows her to move past some types of emotional baggage and get the core of the matter.

I recently read another book, "Be Different, Tales from a Free-Range Aspergian" by John Elder Robinson. It's an excellent first person explanation of what it's like to live in a world where all the rules are coded in a language you don't understand. "Mockingbird" offers another insight into how a younger person attempts to break the code of social skills and emotional content. I also appreciated that the school counselor is presented in a particularly positive and effective light. Yay, for a good impression of mental health!

The Absolute Value of Mike, 2011

After finishing the previous book by Kathryn Erskine I checked out this book. It's also a young adult novel, written from a 14 year old's perspective. Interestingly in this book it appears that the father of the main character, Mike, has Asbergers. Whereas in Mockingbird the main character was telling the story through the lens of someone without the correct social decoder this time the main character's father lacks much social wisdom. However, the father is never diagnosed with this disorder, instead the reader is left to gather that from the interactions between father and son. The dad is rigid and has a difficult time relating to his son, conversely the son runs the household and is particularly socially aware.

I'm also picking up on a reoccurring theme in Eskine's books, presenting a child/early adolescent and having him/her accomplish something fantastic. In the first book Caitlin manages to help a community heal from tragedy and in this book Mike helps to get a child adopted from Romania. Of course there are other's who help and make it possible but ultimately it is this 14 year old's tenacity that makes it happen. I like the empowering feel of her writing, I wonder what the reviews say when written by adolescents and middle school students?

Mike is a fun character who is easy to like, and he wears his emotions on his sleeve so it's also easy to see what motivates him. He is perhaps a bit too lucky but that's not an uncommon trait for novel characters to have. I especially liked the parts where he expressed his anger and saw what happened. At times I wonder if we as adults communicate that anger is something that you "shouldn't" express openly. The author seems to let Mike have his moments of anger and then experience the consequences. Sometimes those are difficult to grapple with and other times they are useful. This may be a good model for thinking about talking to youth about expressing anger.

She's an excellent author that I look forward to hearing speak about her thoughts on the place of faith in writing a story. It would seem to me that both of her stories have a strong narrative about the power of an individual in the context of the community. I will be interested in to hear what she has to say.

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