The following essay was written for School Library Journal. To read the post on the SLJ website, click here.
When PBS announced To Kill a Mockingbird was voted America’s “Best-Loved Novel” on The Great American Read, the selection was not met with universal celebration. Many believe Harper Lee’s classic novel to be problematic, if not outright racist. When teaching Mockingbird, we cannot and should not ignore those issues. Instead, we should use those elements as part of the lesson and build on it with connected historical sources and contemporary novels that explore the same themes from different perspectives.
I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, and the more I read and reread it with my eighth grade students now, the closer I examine the story and craft that makes this book so memorable. In our current time, when race relations are so contentious, To Kill a Mockingbird brings to the forefront issues of race, gender, class, and speaking out when we see injustice. Throughout the novel, the perceptions of the young narrator Scout become keener as she examines these issues. Yet her observations also remain limited. She is a white, upper-middle class girl, and she can provide the audience with only that narrow insight into her small-town world.
In an article for the New York Times, author Roxane Gay recently wrote, “To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for which a great many people harbor reverence and nostalgia. I am not one of those people.…
“The black characters—Robinson and the family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia—are mostly there as figures onto which the white people around them can project various thoughts and feelings. They are narrative devices, not fully realized human beings,” she wrote.
This is true. Calpurnia and Tom are not developed characters, and we only see them from Scout’s perspective. Gay continued, “Perhaps I am ambivalent because I am black. I am not the target audience. I don’t need to read about a young white girl understanding the perniciousness of racism to actually understand the perniciousness of racism. I have ample firsthand experience.”
Gay’s essay is important. Teachers must offer multiple perspectives. Our reading and understanding of any text is shaped by our own knowledge and experiences. I teach in a school that is predominantly white and upper-middle class. Most of my students do not have experience with racism beyond what they read or see on film. Their lives are white-centric, and reading Mockingbird brings to the forefront a conversation about race, class, gender, and injustice.
Literature, as Grace Lin describes in her TED Talk Mirrors and Windows of Your Child’s Bookshelf (2016), “can show you the world and also show you a reflection of yourself.” We strive for our students to connect with books in a way they can see the potential and possibility for making the world a better place. Books not only are reflections of ourselves, as Lin points out, but they should also allow readers to see life from another perspective. Books should help readers build empathy and question injustice. They should create new opportunities that depict strength, adversity, and the responsibility to speak out against wrongdoing.
When reading Mockingbird, students can explore the issues with further reading, both historical and contemporary. From a historical point of view, supplemental readings about gender in the South during the 1930s can be paired with gender inequality today. Historians tell us that Lee based what happened to the novel’s Tom Robinson on The Scottsboro Trial and Emmett Till. To build background around Mockingbird, have students learn about Till as they study Reconstruction. The students can also read and discuss excerpts from Clarence Norris and Sybil D. Washington’s The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography. Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch’s Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird offers a collection of informational texts that support the novel, along with writing prompts and discussion questions.
In addition to primary documents and historical texts, there has been an explosion of contemporary young adult novels that address police brutality and the senseless shooting of young men and women of color, all of which parallel current news events and Mockingbird.
One of the first books I used as a parallel text was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kieley. Since then, there has been an insurmountable collection of well-written texts with diverse voices. Books such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro, and The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater are excellent contemporary books that complement Lee’s masterpiece and immerse readers into issues of race, gender, and social justice. These books can be read aloud in class, used for independent reading during reading workshop, or used for comparative reading with selected passages.
Whether teaching literature or history, we cannot be limited by a single story. In her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains that only showing one perspective impacts our understanding of others and ourselves. A single story is limiting and confining. Adichie states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Regardless of your personal experience with To Kill a Mockingbird, consider the novel a catalyst for conversation about the elements of a great read—books that impact our lives, change our thinking, tug at our emotions, challenge our perceptions, and shape our history and identity. Lee’s Mockingbird shouldn’t be the one and only story that defines America, but it can play a key role as part of the larger narrative and spark much-needed discussion and exploration of issues, history, and complementary fiction.