Oh, dear. I have problems with this one. Big problems. Little problems. Medium-sized problems. I even have problems with my problems.
An Eagle Scout project is (a) a service project and (b) a leadership project. Which means that an Eagle Scout candidate must mobilize a group of people (most likely other Scouts in his troop, but also other community members) to perform an act of service. Making Mission-style furniture just doesn’t cut it, neither teaching other Scouts how to make it nor working with Dad on the weekends. The project has to be approved before undertaken, and this one never would have made it off the ground (says Jonathan, the Eagle Scout). It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but Caitlin’s focus shouldn’t have been on finishing the chest as much as it should have been on providing leadership on a service project.
THE BIG PROBLEM
The voice drives me absolutely crazy. Now I could criticize it on two fronts. First, I could say that based on my knowledge of people with autism and/or Asperger’s symptom that it seems inauthentic. I’m going to leave this point to people who have more experience with the autism spectrum than I do–not that I don’t have any, mind you; I’ve had plenty of students in my classroom and library. (Similarly, some people might object to the portrayal of tragic school violence.) In both objections we are measuring verity, whether the reality of the novel matches that of the real world.
My second line of criticism is to examine whether the voice has an internal logic and consistency throughout the narrative, and this is where I take issue with this book. On the one hand, our narrator uses several conventions of literary fiction, namely (a) first person present tense narrative and (b) dialogue written in italics rather than with quotation marks. On the other hand, she (a) randomly capitalizes letters and entire words and (b) despite having an off-the-chart reading ability she has a limited vocabulary (not knowing words like finesse, closure, fundraiser, and quarter-cut oak). I find this dichotomy extremely jarring.
On page 134 and 135, Caitlin displays her mastery of idiomatic speech: When people say it’s raining cats and dogs it isn’t really. That just means it’s raining a lot. But it can rain frogs if they get sucked up in a storm and they plop down on top of your head. Also snow can be pink if red dirt dissolves in water that evaporates and–
Now in this quote she’s actually speaking aloud, but Caitlin frequently explains the obvious inside her thoughts, things most narrators take for granted. While it does create the effect of a distinct autistic voice with a touch of whimsy and bemusement, it repeatedly draws my attention to the voice and the audience. Is this an internal monologue, a story being relayed in a representational fashion, without regard to audience (meaning the audience is eavesdropping on the narrator’s thoughts, speech, and actions)? I don’t think so. Or is this story consciously being told to an audience, a presentational format, and if so, what kind of assumptions does Caitlin make about her audience (i.e. that they don’t know what it’s raining cats and dogs means, that they are stupid)? See, I don’t think this either. I don’t know that Caitlin has an awareness of her audience. So the presentational voice is meant to have a representational effect. The tension and disconnect between the two makes it hard for me to fall under its spell. So the effect falls flat, seeming more like an artificial construction than an authentic voice.
THE MEDIUM-SIZED PROBLEM
I read a lot. Novels with disabled characters. Novels with autistic characters. Novels with autistic narrators. Novels with grieving children: grieving a father, a mother, a brother, a friend. Novels with distinct voices. Novels with it all. No matter which angle I look at this novel, it just seems average to me, like I can name a handful of better books. For example, I find the autistic narrators in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT IN THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, and MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD to be more successful than MOCKINGBIRD–perhaps not perfect, but better than MOCKINGBIRD. Now I’d never be able to discuss those at the Newbery table, but it still doesn’t help me feel better about MOCKINGBIRD’s distinguished qualities. (And then, too, some people have mentioned OUT OF MY MIND as a better book in a similar vein.) I could go on, but I won’t. The point is that I personally compare MOCKINGBIRD to the sum total of my reading experiences and find it lacking. Now other people will have an entirely different frame of reference because they have different reading experiences (and different life experiences), and I acknowledge that. Clearly, the National Book Award judges saw something special.
THE PROBLEM WITH PROBLEMS
No book is perfect; no book without problems. Which problems are worth taking seriously–and which should we dismiss? I’ve described the Eagle Scout project as a little problem; Nina described the geography in ONE CRAZY SUMMER as a little problem. But are they? What about when my little problem (Kickapoo Indian princess, anyone?) becomes somebody else’s big problem? Do our favorite books only have little problems, while our least favorite books have big problems? Is it entirely subjective? Can we find a measure of objectivity? Or is this whole thing just one big patch of quicksand?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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