I don’t know how many times I can say a book is one of the best I’ve read this year and maintain any credibility; we’ve still got quite a few months left in 2010, so I guess we’ll find out. The thing is, I’m pretty convinced that this is a golden age for YA, and Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds really is a phenomenal debut novel–one of the best I’ve read this year.
Last summer, I took a Children’s Lit class at Cal State University, Northridge. During the course of a discussion on censorship, which everyone was unanimously against initially, we began to question whether there were any topics that people would really consider off limits for YA or children’s lit. When students started to consider what they might not want their own children to read, people discovered that they all had boundaries, each person has some point at which they would be uncomfortable having a kid or teen read a book. For many people, that boundary was rape. Now, I acknowledge the right of any parent to determine what is acceptable for their own child to read, but of course that is extremely different from determining what other people’s children should be allowed to read. The fact is that, according to several studies I found, about forty percent of reported rape cases occurred to people under the age of eighteen. Rape happens to teens far too often, and they have a right to read about it.
In The Mockingbirds, Alex is raped after a drunken night out at a club. She wakes up the next morning in a boy’s room, naked, and discovers two condoms in the trashcan. The trouble is that Alex can barely remember anything that happened that night, but her friends know that she was in no condition to consent. Alex attends a progressive boarding school where punishment is rarely meted out because the school believes the students can do no wrong, but a group of students called the Mockingbirds serve as the school’s vigilante justice system, taking students’ punishments into their own hands. After Alex’s rape, the Mockingbirds become protectors, judges, and jurors. As the investigation and trial are underway, Alex begins to remember bits and pieces of what happened to her, and she knows that the sex was not consensual.
Whitney’s book, inspired by her own experience of being date raped in college, is vividly and powerfully written. I was on the verge of tears throughout most of it. This is not to say that the book didn’t have light moments, because there certainly are some, but the overall intensity and my amazement at what I was reading kept me pretty emotional. In addition to Whitney’s beautiful capturing of Alex’s feelings throughout the book, she also did an impressive job incorporating details from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, on which the school’s justice system is based. (However, those who haven’t read the classic will find that enough explanation is provided to understand everything in this book anyway. But they should still read Harper Lee’s book because it is truly one of the best of all time.) The book was clearly well researched all around, from the descriptions of the classical music Alex plays to Martin the science geek’s mini-lessons on bird intellect. Martin and the other supporting characters were also thoroughly fleshed out, each one with their own story that adds to the book’s strength.
The Mockingbirds shows readers that there can be consequences to stupid drunken behavior, but that if you are raped, you are still the victim and you still have options. It also portrays the importance of speaking out, because even if you will never be who you were before, you cannot let the rape eat away at you and define you forever. In Whitney’s book, Alex does not reach out to any authorities, but she still finds a support system within her school and makes it clear that you do not have to be alone. The novel is never preachy, nor does it stray into feminist manifesto, but it does lend a voice to those who often have difficulty finding their own. At the end of the book, Whitney shares some of her own story and provides resources for people who have experienced sexual assault.