The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
Little, Brown Books, 2010
As part of my job as a TA in a high school library, I keep track of what we're keeping on our "New YA" shelves. As someone who already has an impossibly long to-read list, this is a dangerous job because I get swept up in the covers and blurbs and my list continues to grow and grow. One book in particular that has been continually grabbing my attention was The Mockingbirds by first-time novelist Daisy Whitney. It's premise made me a little nervous, to be honest, in that it takes on a delicate issue and deserves to be handled with care and I was afraid of what would happen if it didn't, but in my efforts to expand my reading palate, I finally checked it out and I'm so glad to have done so.
Alex is a junior at the prestigious Themis Academy, the "piano girl" with dreams of going to Julliard someday. But starting from page one, something's not right. She's naked in bed with a boy she doesn't know and she has no recollection of what happened the night before. Eventually her memories start to come back and her friends help her fill in the gaps, and the truth becomes clear: Alex was date raped. Unfortunately, the administration at Themis refuses to believe or acknowledge that any of their "perfect" students would ever do anything wrong much less commit this kind of heinous act. So when Alex doesn't feel like she can go to them and she doesn't want the attention that would come from going to the police, she instead turns to the Mockingbirds, a secret society of students dedicated to protecting their fellow students and righting the wrongs students commit against each other.
My apprehensions were due to the subject matter, but Whitney handles Alex's feelings in a way that felt very real (and her author's note at the end of the text explains why). Alex struggles with how the situation came to be, if it was her fault, if it was really a crime, and how she wants to deal with it. I found myself transported back to my own high school days and situations both I and my friends were in or knew about - scary, but real. The Mockingbirds have a system in place that kept me interested and that I wanted to believe in, especially since as the details of Alex's attack become known, it becomes more and more obvious that this boy should not get away with what he has done.
While I felt like I really understood Alex and how her conflicting feelings ate at her, I would have liked the other characters to be slightly more fleshed out and the pacing to slow down just a bit since the story spans several months. Also, as someone who works in a school, I was troubled by the fact that, with the exception of Alex's piano teacher, the instructors and administration at Themis were totally clueless outside of academia. I understand this was necessary in order for the premise of the book to work, but I can't help but be a bit worried now that should any of my students ever need help, they might not speak up. Teens, victims, anyone - if this happens to you or someone you know, I encourage you to tell someone. There are trained professionals who want to help you. I am grateful for the author's note and the list of resources people can access if they or someone they know is the victim of sexual assault.
That being said, I want to reiterate how glad I am that I finally read this. This is a solid debut by Whitney and a story I'd encourage any of my students to read. The references and tie-ins to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird were well done and made me go dust off my own copy of the novel which I haven't read since my own freshman year of high school. Whitney captures an authentic, vulnerable teenage voice that is believable. Not since Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak have I read a YA novel that addresses rape so well, and I look forward to the sequel, The Rivals, in bookstores and libraries now.
Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!
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