Good morning! Today I return to my favorite subject and the topic for this week: Banned and Challenged Books! Can there be any better topic for discussion ever?
Just about anyone who knows me at all knows that my favorite book in the entire world is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’ve said many times that this book — more than any other influence in my life — shaped the person I am today. The lessons of tolerance, acceptance and understanding are deeply ingrained in the adult I have become; and I owe a huge debt to Ms. Lee and my high school English teachers for those lessons.
To Kill a Mockingbird has been widely challenged in the 50-odd years since its publication. Before we can understand why it’s been challenged, first let me tell you a little about the book for those who haven’t read it.
To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of a young girl growing up in Alabama before the Civil Rights Movement. If you know anything about the more southern states, it will come as no surprise to you that race relations are still an issue; and it was most definitely an issue when the book takes place in 1940s Alabama. The book’s protagonist, Scout Finch, is five or six years old and ignorant of the racial tensions around her. She’s been raised by a single father, Atticus, whose presence in her life is somewhat omnipotent.
Atticus is — to this day and in my mind — the wisest man ever. He teaches his children life lessons though his own actions, and through analogies.
The core of the story centers around Scout’s day-to-day life in Macomb, Alabama. Her father, a respected attorney and town leader, has been asked defend an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. The only way for this man to hope for proper representation and a fair trial in this segregated southern town is through Atticus. So he takes on the legal representation and stands against “his own people” to defend a black man. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with the people of Macomb, and their anger touches those closest to Atticus — maybe most especially Scout and her older brother, Jem.
Through the novel, Atticus teaches his children several important lessons. The most important of which is probably those of kindness, tolerance and acceptance. He teaches them not to judge without knowledge, and not to hurt others by vicious words and thoughtless deeds. It truly is, in my mind, an instruction manual of sorts for how to live life.
As a child reader, the lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird made an indelible impression upon me and have followed me my entire life. I remember as though it were yesterday the words of Atticus Finch as he told Jem, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” He goes on to explain that mockingbirds do nothing to draw the wrath of people; they just fly around making beautiful music for people to enjoy. Even as a child, I was able to connect the dots and understand that Atticus Finch wasn’t just referring to mockingbirds — he was talking about people, too. Just as it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, it should also be a sin to hurt others for no better reason than the color of their skin, or because they’re different and that difference scares us. Even then, it seemed clear to me that racism was about fear, and I’ve made a conscious decision not to be fearful in my life.
Why then, with so many important lessons, has To Kill a Mockingbird — a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — found itself challenged so many times? What could really be wrong with challenging…wrong?
According to the Banned Book Awareness website, the first major challenge to this novel came in 1966 in Hanover, Virginia, when a parent argued that using rape as one of the central themes of a novel was immoral. Cleary this didn’t sit well with the author, Harper Lee. About the author’s reaction, the article states:
Upon learning that school administrators were holding hearings regarding the book’s appropriateness for the classroom, Harper Lee sent $10 to The Richmond News Leader suggesting it to be used toward the enrollment of “the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
Have I mentioned that Harper Lee is my hero?
The article goes on to explain that future challenges seemed to center around the theme of racism, some saying that the central theme of discrimination wasn’t addressed harshly enough. And still other challenges were issued on the basis of language, such as the words “damn” and “whore lady.” In the 1980s, some schools called it a “filthy, trashy novel.”
Really? If To Kill a Mockingbird is a “filthy, trashy novel,” then I’d argue that our country needs a whole lot more “filthy, trashy novels.”
The last challenge I could find for this novel came in 2011 when it once again made the Top Ten List for that year’s most frequently banned books.
All of this leads me to the one question I always come back to when it comes to banned and challenged books: why? Why does one person (or a group of people) feel that their personal, moral, or religious beliefs are more important than the First Amendment? Why does anyone think it’s okay dictate for others what is or isn’t appropriate reading material?
One of the best aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird is that it makes people think. For me, it made me think so hard that it influenced who I became as a person. And really, isn’t that what we want for our children? Don’t we want them to become independent thinkers and to see the world around them as something bigger than themselves?
If you haven’t read this novel, I’d strongly encourage it. Buy it. Read it. Share it with your children. Give it as a gift for college graduation. I wasn’t kidding when I referred to it as an instruction manual for how to live life. It’s that good!
Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? If so, what do you think? Would you let our 8th grader read it? I’d love to hear your comments.
In the meantime…Because I feel so strongly about this novel, I leave below links where you can satisfy your curiosity by instantly purchasing a copy. Do it – you’ll thank me later!