The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012, 368 pages
I picked up The Mockingbirds after I saw it compared to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which I had loved. While I saw some of the factual similarities during my time with The Mockingbirds, I found the writing, plot, characterization, and overall personality of the book couldn’t really compare with E. Lockhart’s novel. I won’t spend this review comparing the two — I don’t think that’s fair to either book. But, because the two are so frequently held up against one another (at least, they were on Goodreads, Novelist, Tumblr, and a handful of other bookish communities and resources), I thought it was important that I start there.
Now that that’s out of the way, The Mockingbirds deals with Alex, a student at the prestigious and private school, Themis Academy. Known for their lack of rules for students and dedication to what they call character-building through the allowance of an extremely self-governed student body, Themis Academy has a problem. Without the guidance of rules and enforcers, past students have taken it upon themselves to come up with a justice system, making the school truly theirs. The system, called the Mockingbirds, isn’t brought into the spotlight frequently, and operates without a lot of advertisement to the student body. They aren’t a secret society per se, but their lack of advertising leaves some students to believe the group is a myth.
Alex, however, soon knows better. After being date raped, she’s faced with the option to press charges through the Mockingbird’s system. With encouragement from others and support from others who have experienced sexual assault at the hands of her rapist, Alex moves forward with the charges while learning the ins-and-outs of the judicial society.
In the afterword, author Daisy Whitney discusses her own experience with sexual assault. Because of the due sensitivity of the topic, her perspective as an author is absolutely an appropriate one. She handles the topic with realism and grit, but with a gentle understanding as someone who has lived through something similar. This is what makes criticizing this book so difficult. However — overall, I did not feel grippingly compelled to read on. I did finish the book and it didn’t take me forever to do so, but this was not something I struggled to put down. The plot moved slowly, with Whitney’s focus primarily on explaining the process behind the Mockingbird’s system. The book does have a sequel, The Rivals, and I imagine now that the mechanics of The Mockingbirds are out of the way, The Rivals probably gets to more meat than did its parent novel. I haven’t read it, and can’t say that I absolutely plan on it, though, so I can’t say for sure.
While the overall realism of the story was unlike a lot of other YA fiction I’ve read, I found a lot of that realism to just make the book drag. I read, in large part, to escape the monotony of the day-to-day. You may not need a fantasy novel to achieve that, but the realism injected into this novel made it just more day-to-day, despite the horrific events of Alex’s time at school. Characters were equally mundane, except for one of Alex’s friends, whom the narrator reminded the readers was British again and again. Compared to the other characters, this one was over-the-top and felt out of sync with everything else, making relationships additionally awkward.
The writing itself wasn’t awful. It was sufficient, but again, not terribly compelling. In the end, The Mockingbirds was just mediocre to me. It tells an important story, and perhaps the importance of that story trumps the need for something necessarily entertaining or beautiful or anything else a novel is “supposed to be.” If you’re looking for fictional representations of sexual assault, particularly if you’re a student writing on the topic, this is a really great piece of evidence to work with. If you’re reading for pleasure, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one.