Students Discuss Complex Issues Prompted by Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird

Submitted by Professor Bryan Crandall on December 22, 2011

In early December, Dr. Emily R. Smith, Associate Professor and Coordinator of English Education, and undergraduate students, Tara Brennan and Jessica Giordano, hosted an event at the Fairfield University Bookstore to discuss Katherine Erskine’s young adult novel, Mockingbird. Dr. Smith and her students guided a difficult conversation about tragedy, coping with death, and tolerance. “Events like this are extremely important,” reflected Jessica Giordano, a student in the new 5-year teacher education program. “They foster an interest in reading for young adults and maintain an atmosphere where youth feel comfortable discussing important issues.”

Erskine’s Mockingbird received the 2010 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and was the 2011 American Library Best Fiction for Young Adults winner. It is the story of Caitlin, an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, who strives to bring closure to her brother’s tragic death. Caitlin, like a mockingbird, navigates beyond the black/white nature of her Asperger’s to help her father, school, and town heal from the school shooting that impacted their lives.

Students in Dr. Smith’s Literature for Young Adults class read Mockingbird and thought an ideal outcome for the course would be to invite others to discuss the book at a community event. Smith’s literature class provides opportunities for future teachers and English majors to explore a variety of texts written for adolescents. “Young adult literature is a genre that has the capacity to engage readers across ages and generations, across gender and geography” discussed Dr. Smith. “It demands and supports us to wrestle with issues and ideas present in our communities and world. Such literature has the courage to address them head on in ways that other genres do not.”

Erskine’s Mockingbird introduced several “grown up” issues to middle school readers and Tara Brennan and Jessica Giordano, both undergraduate students in Smith’s class, guided a conversation between them, parents, grandparents and teachers. The event provided a safe space for adults and children to discuss the novel and its themes together. “I appreciated the intergenerational and egalitarian nature of the group,” reflected Dr. Pat Calderwood, “We had something to learn from the insights of people older or younger than ourselves.”

Many parents and grandparents remarked that the community event opened a doorway to discuss complex ideas and that sharing Mockingbird as a way to discuss difference, acceptance, and perseverance. “There was a huge turn out,” reflected Jessica Giordano. “I was amazed by the insights and comments made by the young people. I joked with Tara that the students’ discussion was more advanced and in-depth than the one our class had.” The mature insight of the middle school youth was impressive.

Keep an eye out for future books discussions at the Fairfield University Bookstore in the spring.

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