Friday, June 20, 2014


Author:  Kathryn Erskine
Published: 2010
National Book Award Winner

This is the second book we decided to read in the book club.  Two different people shared the books we chose to read in our group and it is amazing how closely related the two books are to each other.  This book would also be a good book to compare with Rules by Cynthia Lord.  I would recommend this book to students as young as third and fourth grade.  Like Thirteen Reasons Why this book deals with empathy and how our actions impact those around us.

Like Rules, this book deals with autism, but it is told from the point-of-view of an autistic child, Caitlin.  Caitlin is extremely close to her brother Devon who has recently been shot by another child at his middle school.  Two children and a teacher are killed in the massacre.  Devon was like Jimney Cricket to Caitlin.  He helped her understand the way other people saw her and how her actions might be interpreted by others.  Caitlin is a very gifted child and has an amazing ability to read and understand vocabulary, but really only literally.  She sees black and white and she misses many of the intricacies of the English language.  As she grows throughout the book, she helps her community in the healing process after the shooting, helps her father, her friend whose mother was killed, and teaches others and herself empathy.

Throughout the book Caitlin is in search of empathy and closure.  She wants to find closure like it is a tangible object to help her father and herself deal with Devon's death.  She searches the definition in the dictionary and is left confused, but when she finds the definition on the Internet, she finally "gets it."  The definition she finds is:  "-the act of bringing to an end; a conclusion - example:  They finally brought the project to closure."

From the beginning of the book Caitlin has commented about a wood chest that her brother and dad had been building for Eagle Scouts.  Caitlin takes the definition of closure to mean that she and her father have to finish the chest.  The chest is a symbol for Devon and his life and hope.  When I first read about the chest I actually thought that it was in reference to a chest on a body and in a way it really is that type of chest too.  Chapter 1 is titled:  Devon's Chest.  Here is how the chest, hidden under a sheet is described:  "It looks like a one-winged bird crouching in the corner of our living room.  Hurt.  Trying to fly every time the heat pump turns on with a click and a groan and blows cold air onto the sheet and lifts it up and it flutters for just a moment and then falls down again.  Still.  Dead."  In chapter 11, we find out that Devon had been shot in the chest and the doctors could not do anything to save him.  Caitlin is struggling to figure out what she can do and she gets into the wood chest.  She thinks of her limbs as the atria and ventricles in the body.  She starts rocking in the chest and beating it like a heart, chanting "Dev-on.  Dev-on.  Dev-on."  Caitlin's dad grabs her as she is trying harder and harder to beat for Devon, and she screams the reminder from the "green hospital people, I TRIED BUT THERE WAS NOTHING I COULD DO."

The project that finally helps bring closure is the completion of the chest.  Caitlin and her dad work on the chest together and finish it.  This is a great feat for Caitlin not just because she finished the chest and helped her father, but because it was her first group project, it was something she did to help someone else, and it was when she realized that she was capable of empathy.

In the author's note in the back of the book, Kathryn Erskine writes that the events from the shooting at Virginia Tech inspired her to write this book.  Her comments related directly to what I thought about Thirteen Reasons Why.  This book is about the suffering endured by a family and a community because of a school shooting, but also reminds us that "by getting inside someone's head, really understanding that person, so many misunderstanding and problems can be avoided - misunderstanding and problems that can lead to mounting frustration and, sometimes, even violence.  Caitlin, who is autistic and sees the world in black and white, worked diligently to discover what mattered to her dad, to her friend, and even to her enemy and helped her entire community.  I think this is something we can all do.

Kathryn Erskine's research on autism.
Check this book out from the library!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thirteen Reasons Why

Author:  Jay Asher
Published: 2007

I'm reading this book for our book club.  It is about suicide, so I was hesitant to read it, but I was not disappointed.  This is definitely NOT for my 3rd graders, but for high school students and older, this is appropriate.  The author reminds us that even without knowing it our actions can have such a great impact on those around us.

The book was written by Jay Asher and it is from the point of view of two different characters.  One character is Hannah Baker, a high school student who has commited suicide.  Before she kills herself she makes tapes for 13 people who affected her life.  Each person must listen to the tapes and then ship them to the next person.  Hannah claims that all of these people had an opportunity to save her, if only by being kind or noticing that she was suffering.  Some of these people also affected her by being unkind.  The second character is Clay.  Clay has received a copy of the tapes because he is featured as a person on one of the tapes.

I felt like I was experiencing the story with Clay.  I felt his anguish and worried with him as he struggled through listening to the tapes and worrying about how he could have hurt or helped Hannah.  The author puts us right into the story with Clay.  The story actually starts in the present and then flashes back to the previous 24 hours as he listens to the tapes.  In the present, he is mailing out the tapes to the next person on the list to receive the tapes.  As he pays to ship the package, Clay sips his coffee and pulls a few bills and coins from his pocket.  The woman behind the counter says, "I don't think the coffee's kicked in yet.  You're missing a dollar."  I felt like that little bit of information helped me empathize with Clay.  It turns out that the entire book is about empathy.  We need to always consider how our actions might affect someone else and we have to always put ourselves in that person's shoes.

Hannah's problems started when she first moved to the town and some boys ruined her reputation right from the beginning of her freshman year in high school.  We see how these things snowball and lead to one event after another that hurts Hannah's self esteem.  She never seems to have anyone she can turn to and confide in and feels isolated.  I get the impression that at her previous school she may have suffered in some way as well.  She says on the tape, "New town.  New school.  And this time, I was going to be in control of how people saw me.  After all, how often do we get a second chance?"  We never find out what happened the first time around, but this stuck with me.  We never know what someone is going through or has gone through that might make them behave or react to things in a certain way.

This book brought back so many reminders of high school.  So many times I felt isolated and misunderstood, but I was lucky and had someone to turn to.  I felt like this author captured the emotions of a high school student.  I wonder what can be learned from this reminder.  I can't imagine that these feelings are not felt daily in high schools across the country.  Actually, I just read that since Sandy Hook, there are have been 74 school shootings. (CNN)  Not all of these were students hurting other students, but it happens.  This book is a reminder that we have to listen to each other and really concern ourselves with how our actions affect others.  Sometimes we do not plan to hurt others, but unwittingly hurt others.  And sometimes we do try to hurt others, but the impact can be incredible because this might be just one more thing, the last straw.

Clay learns that he could have helped Hannah.  He really had no way of knowing that he could have helped her, but if he had tried harder to be her friend, she might have survived. It's not that he turned his back on her, he just thought she didn't want a relationship with him.  He couldn't have been further from the truth.

The book ends on a positive note.  Clay sees a girl he has avoided since 8th grade because she has kept herself away from everyone else.  He realizes that this change in her since 8th grade is a sign that she needs a friend.  We don't know what happens, but he makes an effort and calls out to her and the book ends.  "A flood of emotion rushes into me.  Pain and anger.  Sadness and pity.  But most surprising of all, hope.  I keep walking.  Skye's footsteps are growing louder now.  And the closer I get to her, the faster I walk, and the lighter I feel.  My throat begins to relax.  Two steps behind her, I say her name. 'Skye.'"

Check this book out from the library! 

 After reading my book review my husband asked me why Hannah didn't take into consideration the effect her tapes might have on others.  I hadn't though of that.  So true!  The impact of these tapes on these people could be devastating!  I suppose if Hannah had considered the point-of-view of the others then there wouldn't have been a book.  This seems like a good opportunity for someone to write books from the point-of-view of the 12 other people mentioned on the tapes.