Monday, December 27, 2010

REVIEW: The Mockingbirds by @DaisyWhitney --The Mockingbirds will "say the word..and if that mockingbird won't sing, Mama's gonna write down everything."

Guys, I can't handle it.  There are too many books with the word "mocking" in their title.  Icannothandleit!  Baaaah!

Who declared this to be the year of the mocking?

First there was what's its name.  You know.  By What'sHerName, Harper Lee?  To Kill a Mockingbird! That came out in 1960.  Then, since it became such an insta-classic, it was like, nobody could touch mockingbirds for forty years.

But the moment 2010 dawned, we had Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (which by the way WON the children's National Book Award!  Huge deal!  And I've read it!  Wowz!).  MockingJAY by Suzanne Collins and now THE MockingbirdS by Daisy Whitney (which does refer heavily to the hush little baby nursery song and To Kill a Mockingbird).

My brain can't handle all of these mockings.  It's like some great force out there in the universe is mocking me.  And very blue.

But it would also seem, that if an author/editor team decide to have mocking in the title, that the book is also required to be pretty awesome.  Because, just like all of the other books mentioned above, Daisy Whitney's The Mockingbirds is pretty awesome.

Whitney, D.  (2010).  The Mockingbirds.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company.

335 pages.

Appetizer:  When Alex Patrick, a junior, wakes up, she is naked, lying beside a naked boy in his dorm room of their boarding school.  She is uncertain of the boy's name and she can't remember what happened last night.

The opening of The Mockingbirds is so powerful, I didn't want to stop reading after I glanced at the opening lines when my copy first arrived in the mail:

"Three things I know this second:  I have morning breath, I'm naked and I'm waking up next to a boy I don't know. 
And there's a fourth thing now.  It's ridiculously bright in my room.  I drape my forearm over my eyes, blocking out the morning sun beating in through my windows, when it hits me--a fifth thing.
These are not my windows.
Which means this is not my bed." (p. 1)
Yikes, right?

At the sight of two used condom wrappers in this guy--Carver?  Carter's?--room trash, she begins to realize that she was sexually assaulted.  She makes her way to her dorm trying to convince herself that nothing happened.  But due to some perceptive observations from her best friend and one of her roommates, T.S., it becomes clear that she'll have to face the fact that something did happen.

During the next week of school, to make matters worse, Carter, the boy, starts a rumor that Alex is easy.  Desiring the truth to come out, and following her friends urgings, Alex chooses to go to the Mockingbirds, the semi-secret school organization that students can bring their grievances to when they're seeking justice.  It's the only form of justice at the progressive Themis Academy, that refuses to acknowledges their student body can be anything less than perfect.

By speaking up about her experience, Alex learns that she is not alone, that she has friends who support her and as aspects of that horrible night come back to her, she'll also begins to heal and grow beyond her experience.

So, The Mockingbirds is an excellent book to discuss what rape is, how "non-consensual" is defined, and the fact that most people who have been raped are raped by people they knew.  The book also does a great job of speaking back to books that always seem to have a rape-victim feel ostracized and alone.  It was very refreshing.  (But having said that, I did feel like Alex's friends figured out what was going on with her faster than anyone I know would have and I have some perceptive people in my life.  But that could just be me.)  I also thought that although the adults at Themis were so naive and unwilling to acknowledge the obvious problems in front of them that readers would love how willing some of the teens in the novel were to seek justice when the system failed them.

This book is very well-written, it tells an important story and Alex is a very believable and relatable character.  (I liked how she would occasionally describe the things she was imagining in her mind.  I also liked how devoted to her music she was--she's working to make her dream of attending Juilliard a reality and to reclaim the music she loves.)  But as I was reading, I have to admit, there was one major aspect of the book that bothered me...while her school had no way of addressing the crime or prosecuting for offenders, Alex refused to go to the police or to talk to her parents about what had happened.  While I completely understand Alex's reluctance to talk about what happened to her--it's incredibly hard to narrate about any trauma--and I know a teenage girl is more likely to confide in friends her own age than anyone else, but as readers, we don't really see her confide.  When T.S. first suspects the rape, Alex tries to change the subject.  Even later, when Alex is described as telling the Mockingbirds, a friend, the student-judges, etc. her story, we as the readers, are left out of it (most likely because it would feel redundant to us.  On this note, this is also probably why the parents weren't brought in at the end.  They weren't a visible part of the rest of the story, why bring them in at the end?)

Now, there is one exception when the reader does see Alex confide in someone about her experience at the very end of the book.  And by then she is also able to use exact words to describe what happened to her.  And by then, I'd say, she has already taken a great number of steps to begin healing.  But, since that dialogue was finally included, I wanted to see more of her taking steps towards being able to say, "I was date-raped."  After seeing her use the language, I wanted to know how she had told her story to others.  (And I think such additions would have worked well, since there are a several moments throughout the book when Alex is in similar situations to contrast her reactions to different people and to show the difference between having a choice and not having a choice.)

As I read, I did hope at some point, she would tell her parents.  I couldn't help but read the book thinking, how would someone who has experienced date-rape and was still seeking justice read this book?  While the idea of a do-gooder secret organization bent on exacting justice is a wonderful escape and how much support Alex finds among her friends is heartwarming, the vast majority of readers who are dealing with experiences similar to Alex's don't have access to such an awesome semi-secret organization.  They don't have friends who figure it out after asking just a few questions and begin the steps of reaching out for help for their victimized friend.

I found myself just wishing for a moment at the end when Alex would call her parents and say,"Hi, this happened to me.  It sucked.  And with some help, I'm speaking up and moving beyond it."  Now (vague spoiler!) Alex does eventually talk to an adult who she trusts, which is awesome.  I just wanted a bit more of a typical experience interwoven with the super-awesome Mockingbird elements.  I wanted to see Alex trying to find the nerve and the words to tell someone who wasn't abnormally perceptive, who didn't instead tell Alex what had happened to her.  Does that make sense?

Now, since the book is already out in the world, my suggestion to teachers would be to include a list of phone numbers at the end of the book with helplines or of a location where a reader can seek help.  Best of all, a teacher should offer to discuss the content of the book with an interested student and be open to hearing about that student's own concerns.

But still, having lodged this critique, The Mockingbirds opens up a space to dialogue about rape and consensual relationships that may not otherwise be available to some readers.  It definitely is on the side of SPEAK-UP!-YOU-ARE-NOT-ALONE goodness.  I just wanted alternate practical ways of seeking help to be presented for those readers who have been in similar positions to Alex.

Dinner Conversation:

"As I yank up my socks, I notice a trash can teeming with Diet Coke cans.  Carter doesn't even recycle? Way to pick a winner, Alex.  Then I freeze, seeing something worse, far worse.  Two condom wrappers on top of his garbage, each one ripped down the middle, each one empty.
I close my eyes.  I must be seeing things.  It's the morning,it's hazy, the sun is far too bright.
But when I open my eyes the wrappers are still here, Carter's still here, I'm still here.  And nothing adds up the way I want it to" (p. 4).

"I see one more [flyer].
Join the Mockingbirds!  Stand up, sing out!  We're scouting new singers, so run, run, run on your way to our New Nine, where you can learn a simple trick...
Then there's a drawing of a bird on the corner, his watchful eye staring back at me.
It's code--all code--because the Mockingbirds aren't an a cappella singing group, as they pretend to be.  And the most definitely are not having auditions for singers.  No, the Mockingbirds are something much bigger and much quieter too, and it's tryout time for them, as it is at the start of every term.
The Mockingbirds are the law" (p. 14).

"I hear Casey's voice again.  "Alex, did you say yes?  Did you say yes when you had sex with Carter?  Either time?"
Yes, yes, yes.  No, no, no.
I don't know.
I don't know the things about last night that matter.  I don't know what words were said or not said" (p. 39).

"'You have options.  You can go to the police.'
I whip around.  "Are you joking?" I ask, but I don't wait for her to answer.  "Because I would never go to the police.  Not for something like this."
"Why not?" Casey asks.
"Because then Mom and Dad would know, and they'd have a collective meltdown that would burn a hole in the solar system.  Not to mention they wouldn't approve of that whole underage drinking thing.  And there's that little fact of my having to recount the whole experience to the cops, who would insist on a rape kit like on TV, and I can't imagine anything I'd want to do less than that."
"Then, what about the Mockingbirds?  They can help you" (p. 46).

"...'he told them that you were'--she pauses, collects herself--"begging for it."
I jump up.  "That's a lie!"
I won't let him have the last word.
I turn to T.S.  "Take me to the Mockingbirds" (p. 77).

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

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