What Should Kids Read In School INSTEAD of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?

TKaMBRaise your hand if you read To Kill a Mockingbird in school.

That’s where many of us first encountered Harper Lee’s iconic novel about a child’s growing awareness of racial injustice in the American South. I read the book when I was a kid for school, and then re-read it two decades later to find that: “Jem is just as brave as I remember, and Scout is as funny and headstrong. Their father is a thoughtful and fair-minded man whose parenting style reflects his legal experience.”

That last line sounds funny now, doesn’t it? With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, we now know that Atticus Finch was an unapologetic bigot. That is, if we believe that Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird, as Lee’s lawyer claimed it was, rather than the early draft it probably is. As Max from Litigation and Trial said in Despite Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch Is Still a Hero:

[M]any classic novels started out with truly bizarre first drafts. In the earliest drafts of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several children were sucked into the factory and incorporated into the chocolate bars. The same is true of classic movies: Rocky originally ended with him deliberately throwing the fight. As novelists often say, “the essence of writing is rewriting.” In short, the Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is not the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Trying to pass off Watchman as a sequel—possibly even the final installment of a previously unheard of plan for a Mockingbird trilogy—is just one of the many ways the people purporting to represent Lee’s interests have tried to destroy her legacy.

Other efforts include:

Now, Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, further guts the author’s legacy by putting an end to the mass paperback edition of Mockingbird. This is a move that will likely result in higher royalties for Lee’s heirs at the expense of spreading her work to future fans. As the New Republic explains:

[T]he disappearance of the mass-market edition could have a significant impact on schools. The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance… Without a mass-market option, schools will likely be forced to pay higher prices for bulk orders of the trade paperback edition—and given the perilous state of many school budgets, that could very easily lead to it being assigned in fewer schools.”

So, my children might not read it in school like I did, but maybe its disappearance from the curriculum is not such a bad thing. Is it time to move on?

This question reminds me of a discussion I had with MonkeyMoonMachine (also known as Matt Hagemann) in the comments to Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence That American Culture Is In Decline.* After noting that classic books might not resonate with newer readers the way they did with their original audiences, he said:

I am disappointed in general in how little the new Common Core K-12 standards emphasize teaching any literature of the last 40 years. Perhaps the standards-makers are afraid of declaring any new works as “classics.” But then again, the standards also ignore most of the lit-crit thinking of the last 40 years, too: there’s no Deconstruction, feminist theory, reader-response, etc.

To Kill a Mockingbird is more than half a century old, and perhaps it’s time to declare a new work a “classic.” I would be particularly interested in something that stirs a sense of social justice in children, as To Kill a Mockingbird does, while being something that To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.

Do you have any recommendations?

_______________________________________

*Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, I’d like to mention that I often borrow a phrase from him to describe authors’ estates that do everything they can to “disappear up their own assholes, so to speak.” Vonnegut uttered those words in a different context, but I think the sentiment applies to the short-sighted actions of Harper Lee’s estate (as well as to William Faulkner’s and Arthur Conan Doyle’s). There are so many good books to read out there. We should steer clear of any book that a greedy estate is trying to make difficult to obtain.

38 comments

  1. It was fun and informative to re-visit this discussion. Thanks for the post. Happy holidays—stay safe and be strong!

  2. Very interesting post! I think TKAM is still extremely relevant and I also think it describes an important part of history that middle and high school children should be aware of. However, I do agree that something by an author of colour would perhaps be more appropriate. I never read TKAM in school (but then, I’m not American or from any other country with English as its native language), but (interestingly enough, considering what’s been discussed above) I did have to read The Kite Runner for my English class in high school. I remember it really resonated with a lot of us, so I definitely think it’s a good book for a high school curriculum and relevant today because of its contents. Nevertheless, I do think it is not a good replacement for TKAM, since it’s subject matter is very different and it is set in a country far from home, which would therefore elicit different reactions and emotions from students. The sense of social justice you speak of will (hopefully) be stirred by both novels, though.
    As for Go Set a Watchman, I am going to read it as an early version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and am not in any way going to treat it as a sequel. I’m also urging everyone I discuss these novels with to do the same, because it would be so sad if people would change their opinions of TKAM and Atticus Finch by reading GSAW as its sequel.

    1.  Hello !  I recently read  a lovely different kind of poem-book, I think it is called ‘Cycle-Poem’.  In any event I think you would enjoy this simply written book by a young ‘colored’ person about being ‘colored’.  It is very informative and I think would resonate well in today’s world-young and older alike. If you are not really into poetry, this may well change your mind. I strongly recommend you read this slim volume.  It is a really nice story.  The Title is “brown girl dreaming” by  Jacqueline Woodson. 

    2. I am still very disappointed with the things happening to the Legacy of TKAM and the disservice done to the author. This “Go Set a Watchman”, a writing title I’m sure; in my opinion is nothing more than a rough draft of the final story, TKAM. This written to get the basics of her story down—the Where, when, who, what and how developed. Probably more than one draft. The Rewrite-editing is where the flavor of the story is developed, that is the dialogue, character identity, emphasized incidents and so forth. The only reason I can fathom for keeping this draft is to see how a story grew from such a rough draft— “It takes a village to ‘build a story this strong!’. TKAM, with the input of family, random readers, Beta readers, editors, and other people’s input, a great story developed. I wish Harper had chosen to write more stories but the negatives in her life, I guess, prevented such a thing happening.

    3. I have a few books I can recommend written by women of color: :Mildred D. Taylor has written a series of a family ‘growing up’ books. She is a 1970s author. My favorite is “Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry.” It won the Newberry Award. Another is a 1936 author Zora Neale Hurston and my favorite of hers is “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” She was criticized severely, for not writing fiction in the protest tradition. Another, Written by a black, male author about a female we have all heard of: “Autobiography of “Miss Jane Pittman.” It uses lots of her dialogue of the era, but is easily understood. Maybe because I am from the South I understand more, but no one should have a problem. Written by Ernest J. Gaines. He has also written slim books that are worth reading: “A Lesson Before Dying”, and “A Gathering of Old Men”..

  3. The question you ask is a good one. At my high school, 9th grade English students read TKAM. It’s interesting to see The Kite Runner mentioned — that title was vetoed a couple years back by our school board and/or administrators, and I’m not quite sure why. I really like your idea of introducing more literature written from the perspectives of people of color. That’s a sorely needed fix, at least in my school’s curriculum. Perhaps Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent book “Between the World and Me,” would be valuable for students to read — I was struck by the power of his voice and his ideas.

  4. I always thought we didn’t read TEAM in school, then my mom found a paper I’d written about it from freshman year. I guess it didn’t stick with me then, as it has since reading it as an adult. We did read Richard Wright’s Native Son in school though, and I’ll never forget that reading experience. It was a powerful read!

  5. I was torn on whether it should be read, I mean it’s still pretty pertinent especially in the south. But it kills me that the “estate” has done this for any reason. Accessibility of literature on a mass scale is one of the greatest problems I think America will continue to face with literacy rates. It’s just so sad that money is more important than knowledge and legacy.

  6. I would second that The Kite Runner has a place as a new classic. Read it in university for Social Anthropology class and the conversation was insightful. Our literature canon does evolve, whether we want it to or not. Discussing the choices and conflicts of The Kite Runner was much more immediate to the classroom than discussions of A Tale of Two Cities, although I tremendously value that novel as well as a written work.

    Full discloser, I’ve never actually read TKAM though it’s on my list for this year. Here’s three recent books that I have read which could be used in school instead of TKAM to raise conversation: “Sisters” by Gary Paulsen, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and Jack by A.M. Homes.

    1. I’ve added The Kite Runner to my reading list. It sounds fascinating. I’m also going to check out Sisters, The Outsiders, and Jack (I haven’t read any of them). Thanks for the suggestions!

  7. I can’t think of another book that would fill Mockingbird’s place. In fact, as relevance goes, Mockingbird is one of the few classics that still feels relevant to most high school kids. When I read Mockingbird in high school, I had already read and loved it many times. I remember being delighted to see that even kids who hated English class and reading in general thoroughly enjoyed Mockingbird. The characters felt real to them, the language is unpretentious, and the book is genuinely entertaining while simultaneously making people think. Is it time to rotate out some of the classics? Perhaps. (My first vote would be The Odyssey, to be honest). But has Mockingbird’s time come? I really, really hope not. I think we would be hard-pressed indeed to find something that would fill its place, let alone overshadow it.

    1. I agree with those who think ‘Mockingbird’ should not be replaced–it is just as timely now as it was when first written, even more so in these times
      .

    2. To Kill a Mockingbird felt relevant to me too when I read it, but that was a few decades ago. I’m curious to know how middle schoolers and high schoolers today relate to it–especially individuals from marginalized backgrounds. Mockingbird is yet another book told from a privileged person’s perspective. I don’t know what would replace it, but I hope the publishing industry will give us books that offer us the perspectives that Mockingbird does not.

    3. The struggle I have as a teacher choosing to continue teaching TKM is: how do I justify the number of times Harper Lee’s novel uses the “n—” word; it is said almost 50 times! The story, the message, the way I teach it using incredible black writers giving a strong voice to African Americans during this time period, plus the engagement of the story and its critical theme—all why I love teaching this classic novel. But, how do I justify teaching this while putting the n– word in front of my students almost 50 many times? For me, this is what has me on the hunt for another book to teach, and I love hearing the suggestions.
      I teach at a private school where many of my white students are so sheltered from not only poverty issues but certainly of race inequities that this book, the trial, the way Tom Robinson was not believed and how all the white people fell in line, the connections to trials from that time period to today’s current events, and the way my students ‘wake up’ to the injustice within America is reasons why I struggle to find another book. Meeting with six of my outspoken, strong-minded black students last year, they thought this book should be continued to be taught as they were struck by how much their friends didn’t understand and believe that racial inequality really existed and that it still does. They discussed how they loved this book, the characters, the themes. But, they also discussed the struggles with having to read the n— word, the horrible feeling it gave them, the wish that this story could be edited with almost all of them taken out. One student asked me simply, “There’s millions of books, Mrs. Davis, can’t you find another one that teaches similar things?” Yes, of course I can, and I feel I must.

      1. Thank you for sharing these experiences. It is hard to justify putting the n-word in front of students, especially when some of them have said how horrible it makes them feel. The context in which the word is used might matter (at least that’s what Randall Kennedy writes in his book about the n-word), but how can anyone ignore its negative impact? Good luck finding an alternative. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the books mentioned in these comments. I loved Brown Girl Dreaming, but I felt it was best for a slightly younger audience than TKAM (based on what my kids were reading).

  8. While I think we need to keep re-evaluating the “canon” (and I do believe there should be an always evolving canon so that share some common knowledge at all times), there is no need to get rid of the books that serve us the best. What book would it be replaced by? I’d have to know that before I could decide.

    1. I don’t know what it would be replaced by, and I also don’t know if it serves us “the best.” I’m curious to know how younger readers, particularly individuals from marginalized backgrounds, relate to it. It’s yet another book told from a privileged person’s perspective. I also wonder whether the book is worth it considering the increased cost to school districts. That said, I do think it’s a wonderful book, though I’m less enchanted by it now than I used to be.

  9. I can’t think of a better book than TKAM, in terms of fitting the brief. It’s complex enough for adults to appreciate it still, but with a child’s eye view that makes it more accessible to teenagers, which I think is a major hook that is difficult to find.
    I remember studying Thomas Hardy in school and everyone hating it. It wasn’t even Tess, it was The Trumpet Major.

    1. It’s certainly a wonderful book, but I think it might be nice to find something written from the viewpoint of a person of color that also encourages a sense of social justice in its readers. It’s a perspective we rarely see in literature, and I don’t know enough about what’s out there to know if anything fits the bill. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books too (though I must admit that the actions Tonja Carter has taken on Lee’s behalf have tarnished my view of the novel, especially now that Watchman has left me wondering how much of Lee’s original vision stayed in the final result).

      1. I hope you continue to enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird. I would like to invite you to realize that much of a first draft is totally absorbed and or discarded by the rewrites and for sure with a change in POV of a novel. I feel this is what happened with Lee Harper. An editor and readers can help an author see a better approach to a subject and still the Author’s creative juices flow and bubbles to make a great story-novel. I choose to believe this is the truth with TKAM. I am a short story/essay writer. From experience I can tell you that the editing process and sharing with readers in a draft stage, has definitely let me see a difference in perspective, point of view and even a different approach to a subject—and my creative juices flow. Thank you for this discussion.

  10. I remember reading Lee in school as well. And I liked the books, but there definitely needs to be a change in reading curriculum. Because most classics really don’t resonate well in today’s society. In high school I also read a Tale of Two Cities, and all I remember is the first line. No one, that I can recall, actually enjoyed the book. So why not start including some “newer” classics into the mix.

    1. I agree that many classics don’t resonate well in today’s society. To Kill a Mockingbird presents an interesting southern viewpoint; however, I wonder how much of the South remained in the classic we know today (it seems so heavily revised and Lee’s editors from New York had a lot to do with that). I also think it’s time for the books we require children to read in school to feature more diverse voices. It would be nice to have a book written by a person of color about a person of color.

  11. Hi! I just hope the public doesn’t get Lee’s lawyer’s goals mixed up with Lee’s actual claim that ‘Watchman’ was a first draft, discarded in order to pursue a story from the strong character of Scout. I recall from interviews that even Lee’s sister Alice stated that Lee’s mind in the latter part of Lee’s life was not all ‘there’ and Lee’s new attorney may have taken advantage of this. As Max said and as a writer myself, I agree, “truly bizarre first drafts can and often does become an excellent story. And the essence of writing is rewriting.” Actually the first draft often allows you to see exactly where the weak and strong points of the story are and then the rewrite is fun as you get rid of that which is not essential to your true story. Living in the South, as I have done most of my 78 years of life, is a delicate balance—especially for people who feel that all are God’s children and should be treated equally.

    1. It’s really too bad that Tonja Carter ever got involved. She’s done so much damage to Lee’s reputation. The revelations about Watchman– which caused the NYT to ask how such a lumpy tale became the classic we know — make me wonder how much of To Kill a Mockingbird actually comes from the South. Is it really more a product of New York? I don’t know. As I said in a previous post: “I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.” https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/on-killing-our-heroes-atticus-finch-harper-lee/

      1. So true…just how many books do we really know who wrote it, what did producer, editor, and so forth contribute;. But the end result is a wonderful book such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Does it really matter who actually wrote it? I like to think each author’s ‘germ of an idea’ remains no matter how much input and changes come about with critiques. As you say, we will never know for sure how much of Lee and her hometown remained in final manuscript. Does it really matter? Not for me. I know for sure it has the vibe of a small Southern hometown. I love TKAM with it’s Southern flavors!

        1. “Does it really matter who actually wrote it? I like to think each author’s ‘germ of an idea’ remains no matter how much input and changes come about with critiques.”

          I like to think that’s true. Who actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird might not matter; however, the idea that it was heavily influenced by New York reduces its charm and authenticity. I’m pleased to know that has the “vibe of a small Southern hometown,” though. My husband is from the South (a smallish town in Mississippi). I’ll have to ask him if TKaMB rings true for him.

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