Harper Lee's only novel, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, is one of the most taught pieces of literature in the U.S., and as such, students will read it in school and see the Academy Award winning film with the memorable Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. It’s one of those classics you read more than once, though, and thus its inclusion on our list at ReadKiddoRead. Personally, I still recall getting in big trouble in sixth grade chorus. What was I doing instead of singing? I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a book you can lose yourself in, no matter what you’re supposed to be doing.
That’s not to say the book is without problems. Remember that this story is a period piece, told from the point of view of seven-year-old Scout Finch, though the narrator is obviously an adult now, looking back on a decisive event in her childhood. As such, we learn about the thoughts, fears, prejudices, and concerns of white Southerners back in 1939, and their view of their black neighbors was often not charitable or civil. When it was published, it was considered a brave novel that looked honestly at race relations in the tired and racially divided town of Maycomb, Alabama. Scout describes a time when “a day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer” and she lived in town with her lawyer father, Atticus, her older bother Jem, and their African American housekeeper Calpurnia. That summer they meet up with Charles Baker Harris, who they call Dill, a six-year-old boy staying with his aunt. (If you’ve read anything about the life of Harper Lee, you’ll know that the character of Dill was based on her childhood friend, Truman Capote.) That summer, the three children develop a morbid fascination with their scarily reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, whom they’ve never seen, spying on his house and generally making a nuisance of themselves trying to get him to come out.
When Atticus courageously takes on the defense of Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of raping a young white woman, the respectable white townsfolk are vocal in their displeasure, and their bigotry is jolting. Scout’s idyllic story gives way to ugly realities as it becomes clear that Tom cannot get a fair trial in spite of clear evidence of his innocence. The story’s message of tolerance and justice reverberated in the early 1960s in the light of the growing Civil Rights Movement.
Times change, and the U.S. has come a very long way in terms of race. Nowadays, the book might be viewed to us as patronizing or condescending in its treatment of African Americans; because of its historically accurate but still disturbing use of the “N” word and the subject of rape, it’s often on banned books lists. In a 1999 poll by Library Journal, though, librarians voted it the "Best Novel of the Century.” You’ll want to balance it with novels from the African American experience and perspective, like Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy or The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963.
Reviewed by JF.
Themes: BROTHERS AND SISTERS. HISTORICAL FICTION. RACE RELATIONS.
A READKIDDOREAD CLASSIC
Grand Central Publishing, 1988
Suggested Ages: 12 and Up