By: Lisa Hoover
Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was recently announced as America’s #1 “best-loved” novel in PBS’s The Great American Read. The other finalists were Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, and JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. You can watch the announcement of the winners here.
“One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than forty million copies worldwide, served as the basis for an enormously popular motion picture, and voted one of the best novels of the twentieth century by librarians across the country” (PBS, 2018).
Apparently it wasn’t a hard contest for Lee’s book; PBS reports that To Kill a Mockingbird led the voting from the first week and kept the lead over the entire 5 months of The Great American Read. It also topped the list of votes in every state except North Carolina and Wyoming (PBS, 2018). To Kill a Mockingbird landed a whopping 242,275 votes of the 4.3 million votes cast (Solly, 2018).
Why am I excited that To Kill a Mockingbird won?
It has a history as a banned book, as do some of the other finalists. The Office of Intellectual Freedom’s blog has previously shared details of the book’s past challenges, which stretch from publication in 1960 right to the present (American Library Association, 2018). More information about past bans of To Kill a Mockingbird are available from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books.
For those unfamiliar with the book, it chronicles a white lawyer’s defense of a black man against a false rape charge by a white woman. Due to strong language, discussions of sex and rape, and use of the N-word, it has become one of the most frequently challenged books in the US (Little, 2017).
One of the earliest challenges was in Hanover County, Virginia in 1966 due to discussions of rape and the fact that the book was “immoral.” In response, author Harper Lee said, “Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read” (Little, 2017).
Nelle Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926 in Alabama. She was the youngest of four kids and grew up as a tomboy in her small town. (Does this remind readers of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout?) Her father was a lawyer, and it is believed that her mother may have suffered from bipolar disorder. She was a close friend of writer Truman Capote.
Lee went on to attend Huntington College in Montgomery, joining the literary honor society and the glee club. She later transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where she contributed to the school’s newspaper. Lee studied law for a while and visited Oxford University as an exchange student.
She gave up her legal studies to become a writer. She finished the manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1959, and it was later adapted for the big screen in 1962. It has also been translated into more than 40 languages, with more than a million copies sold each year (Biography, 2018).
Lee later collaborated with Truman Capote on his book In Cold Blood. She also served on the National Council of the Arts under President Lyndon B. Johnson. President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Lee surprised fans in 2015 with a sequel to the novel called Go Set a Watchman, which was controversial with readers due to a more bigoted portrayal of Atticus Finch. She died February 19, 2016 at the age of 89.
Many argue that banning the book prevents the use of the book as a teaching tool to “spark important discussions among students about racial tolerance” (Little, 2017). However, in recent years use of the book as a teaching tool has also raised criticism.
“Lee’s is not the best book to teach white kids about racism, because it grounds its narrative in the experiences of a white narrator and presents her father as the white savior,” author Kristian Wilson argues (Little, 2017).
In an op-ed, Alice Randall argues that even more problematic than the use of the N-word is the portrayal of a woman lying about rape charges. “But Mayella Ewell’s lies, which are the crux of the false charges brought against Tom Robinson, are far more complicated — too complicated for the eighth grade, perhaps even with an excellent teacher” (Randall, 2017). She also points to a lack of agency by black characters in the novel (Randall, 2017).
It’s interesting to note that another novel that faces similar criticism by modern readers, Gone with the Wind, placed sixth on the Great American Reads list.
Randall argues that the lessons generally taught by To Kill a Mockingbird can better be taught by exposing students to other novels written more recently, such as Walter Dean Meyers’ 1999 novel Monster (Randall, 2017).
“Let’s instead think about how, why and when we invite books into our classrooms, about the needs of an increasingly diverse student body and about how we can use difficult books to both illuminate our shameful past and better shape the young minds of our future“ (Randall, 2017).
To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly still beloved. I myself read it in school (although longer ago than I might like to admit). And, as I said, I’m thrilled to see a banned book as America’s “best-loved” read. Mockingbird certainly provides fodder for challenging and difficult classroom discussions on gender and perhaps sexual assault. On the other hand, critics raise interesting questions as to whether we continue to teach it out of nostalgia or because it really is the best book for the topic.
Of course, there is a significant difference between choosing to stop teaching a book because it has become outdated and banning it because it makes us uncomfortable. Part of the reason that the novel is so well loved, I think, is because it challenged so many of us to think about difficult issues. Whether we continue to teach Mockingbird or choose to move on to another, more modern book, I hope one important lesson from Mockingbird will live on – we will continue to read, and love, our banned books.
Biography (2018) Harper Lee biography. Biography.com. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from https://www.biography.com/people/harper-lee-9377021.
American Library Association (2018). Top Ten Most Challenged Books Lists. American Library Association. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10.
Little, B. (2017) Why ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ keeps getting banned. History. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from https://www.history.com/news/why-to-kill-a-mockingbird-keeps-getting-banned.
PBS. (2018) The Great American Read. PBS. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/results/.
Solly, M. (2018) The results are in… These are America’s ‘Most-Beloved’ novels, says PBS. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/these-are-americas-top-10-favorite-novels-180970580/.
Randall, A. (2017) Why are we still teaching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in schools? NBC News. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/why-are-we-still-teaching-kill-mockingbird-schools-ncna812281.
Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx, and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.