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The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

Image of The Mockingbirds
There’s no real rhyme or reason why a good book doesn’t resonate with you. Why have I blocked out major plot points of American Pastoral ? Why does the Old Man and Sea still make me shudder with dislike? Why do some people hate Mansfield Park (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) ?

The Mockingbirds is a very good book, worthy of its National Book Award distinction as a high point of juvenile literature this year. But it left me a bit cold.

The book begins with Alex, a student at the elite Themis Academy, waking up to find she’s been date-raped by a fellow student. Instead of reporting it, she turns to an underground justice system at the school known as the Mockingbirds. The group members, it seems, have ways of righting wrongs.

It’s a great concept, and highlights of the book include the riveting courtroom scenes where Alex confronts her rapist. There’s a strong message of female empowerment that young readers, and their mothers, will love. There’s a subplot involving Alex’s romantic involvement with a leader of the Mockingbirds, a new and important message in YA literature that a horrific sexual encounter does not doom you to a life of frigidness or celibacy.

But there are problems. For one, Alex’s love of music mostly consists of her love of Ode to Joy, while a true high-school music nerd would pick something way more obscure, perhaps musing on the secret wonders of modern Polish composers. Secondly, there’s a definitive anti-authority tone to the book that teens might love but will make adults cringe. There are few good adults here: an English teacher, in a fit of bad judgment, has Alex act out the rape scene from The Tempest, and the majority of the Themis teachers want these brilliant children to act like trained monkeys. Turning to a parent is a non-starter for anyone. Toward the end, there’s a kind teacher who talks to Alex about the True Meaning of Rape, a section that feels tacked on to show that not all adults are evil, and to address a weird turn where Alex starts to doubt herself and her version of events.

But none of this should minimize that Whitney has taken her own date rape as an 18-year-old at Brown and turned it into a positive book for teenagers. Much like Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition , there’s room for The Mockingbirds in classrooms and in homes as a way to discuss what rape means.