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!

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