by Kathryn Erskine
First sentence: “It looks like a one-winged bird crouching in the corner of our living room.”
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Caitlin is Working On Getting It. It’s a daily process for her, since she has Asperger’s syndrome, and certain things — like figuring out how others are feeling, or reading facial expressions — don’t come easily to her. It used to be that her older brother, Devon, would explain things for her and help her cope with the strange and the difficult. But now, because of a horrible tragedy at his middle school, Devon is no longer around. Caitlin’s father is a basket case, and the only person left to help Caitlin figure out everything — though what she’s looking for, mostly, is Closure — is the counselor at school, Mrs. Brook.
I’m not especially well read in books about the autism spectrum, but I have read a few, and Erskine captured the experience of a high functioning autistic child extremely well. Caitlin’s voice was the strongest thing about the book; in both her inner dialogue and experiences, as well as the way she related to other people, her personality and her challenges came through loud and clear. Erskine’s use of capitals and all caps particularly jumped out at me. Instead of being distracting, it added to Caitlin’s character.
If it were just that, I would have loved the book with absolutely no qualms. However — and kudos to Erskine for being up front about this — this is a book with a Message. Mind you, I don’t disagree with the message: I anti-violence, and I am all for understanding one another. That said, books that are so message heavy, whatever the message, don’t sit well with me. I was never able to get past the message hammer on my head: killing. people. ruins. lives. it’s. hard. to. cope. after. a. loved. one. dies. understanding. others. helps. Yes, we know, thank you very much. I understand the need for conflict; and even understand the need to talk about violent tragedies. But I felt like the message came first in this case, and the story was only a vehicle to getting that message across. I think the book would have sat better with me if those two things were reversed.
Aside from the message hammer, it was a good read. There’s a lot to think about, and I do hope that kids actually get around to picking this one up (and it’s not just one that adults read and love and give awards to, but kids never crack open). Even if it’s only to experience Caitlin as a character.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)