The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney. Little, Brown, and Company, 2010. Currently available.
Genre: YA Realistic Fiction
Face Value: I love a bold graphic, and this cover delivers. There is an air of mystery about this cover. The bird and tree on the front don’t give the reader any clue what this book will be about – you have to read the front flap of the dust jacket to get a real feel for the story. Tidbits of text on the cover hint at the subversive nature of what happens in the book: “Hush little students, don’t say a word….” With a great-looking cover like this, I had no qualms about reading this book in public.
My only complaint: too many YA books published in 2010 had mockingbird related titles. This one does, as well as Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. Both Mockingbird and Mockingjay were high-profile books, and I fear that Whitney’s book perhaps didn’t receive as much attention as it deserved because of title mix-up. Also, the similar titles make it difficult to discuss these books with fellow YA readers because it takes us a few minutes to figure out which book we are talking about.
Does it break the slate? Thoroughly. The central character, Alex, is date-raped, and the book explores the aftermath of fear, anger, and activism that results. Rather than being a silent victim, however, Alex chooses to speak out and bring charges against her rapist. She does this with the support of her equally Slatebreaking female friends. Her friends refuse to let social stigma prevent Alex from finding justice. I was repeatedly impressed and thrilled with the complex and generous characters that formed Alex’s social circle. There is a delightful abundance of Slatebreaking females in this book.
This book goes beyond Slatebreaking characters and introduces a Slatebreaking social concept: a board of students who serve as the judicial branch of a boarding school. They are self-governing and self-policing, because the adult administration of the school ignores any unrest among the student body. The board was formed by a female (Alex’s Slatebreaking sister Casey), and is currently run by a female. Female leadership is an admirable and Slatebreaking part of the Mockingbirds’ culture.
Who would we give it to? I’m going to steal this idea from my sister, who recommended the book to me: I would give this book to teen court peer adjudicators and advisors. Any adult or teen that works in peer justice should read this book. I would also share it with young men or women who are beginning to explore their sexuality, because this book does an excellent job of addressing issues of consent that are often neglected in sex ed classes or parent/child “birds and bees” talks.
Review: Alex attends Themis Academy, a private boarding school on the East Coast. Themis students are the best of the best. Alex is a skilled pianist with a penchant for Beethoven. The rest of the Themis students that we meet throughout the book are equally talented – so much so that the administration believes that their students are perfect angels. Such wonderful and dedicated students would never break the rules, right? Because of the administration’s ignorance, there are no formal structures in place to deal with problems among the student body. This doesn’t bother Alex until she encounters a situation that indelibly alters her life at Themis Academy.
Alex gets the shock of her life when she wakes up one morning next to a boy she doesn’t know after a night that she doesn’t remember. As she stumbles out of his room she sees two condom wrappers in the garbage and she realizes what must have happened. She is devastated by the fact that she had sex with someone she just met and upset because she has no idea about the details.
At first, Alex is reluctant to tell anyone what happened. Thank goodness that she has a smart and supportive female friend who immediately recognize that something is wrong – her roommate, T.S.. T.S. coaxes the story out of her, and Alex admits that she doesn’t remember details of the evening.
Alex’s friends tell her that she may have been date-raped – because she was drunk, there was no way she could truly give consent to the boy she was with that evening. They tell Alex to go to the Mockingbirds, the school’s underground justice system, but Alex is wary of speaking out. She doesn’t want to be “that girl who got date-raped” in the campus rumor mill. But as Alex attempts to continue on with her life, she finds that the emotional affects of the date-rape begin to permeate everything she does. She realizes that the only way she can get closure is by bringing charges against her rapist with the help of the Mockingbirds.
This is where the real drama begins. The first part of the book focuses on Alex’s inner turmoil. Once she goes to the Mockingbirds for assistance, the entire student body becomes embroiled in the case. There are those who side with Alex and those who taunt her under the breath as they pass in the hall. The intensity grows as the case progresses, and Alex makes some startling discoveries about herself along the way.
There is a plot development that sets The Mockingbirds apart from other YA books that address date-rape: Alex becomes interested in a guy during the course of her trial. It’s a complex and well-written twist in the story – she finds herself genuinely attracted to this boy, but she has to work through some tricky questions about her comfort level with sexual contact. I found Whitney’s writing of this developing relationship to be sensitive and brilliant. It helped the book achieve a very sex-positive tone. Although Alex had a negative experience with sex, she was still able to enjoy sexual contact when it was with a person for which she felt affection and in a situation in which she wholeheartedly consented. Honestly, I feel that this is the aspect of the book that is most Slatebreaking. Many stories involving sexual assault or rape depict the characters in total fear of sex. Although that fear is a part of Alex’s story, she works through it and is able to have a satisfying and healthy sexual relationship with a respectful and consenting partner.
Whitney deserves high praise for writing a story that goes beyond the typical date-rape scenario in YA and deftly explores issues of social stigma, justice, and sexuality. She avoids slut-shaming and acknowledges that young people can and will engage in sexual activity – but emphasizes that it should be with consent. The Mockingbirds surprised me and made me ponder my own attitude toward justice.
Reviewed from library copy.