To Kill a Mockingbird

Editor’s note: Harper Lee’s  To Kill a Mockingbird was published 50 years ago this month. To celebrate this important literary anniversary, Brad Allen shares what Mockingbird means to him. This post was originally written for  the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in observation of Banned Books Week

book coverWhen I was young, pretty much all you could get me to read were movie novelizations—Gremlins, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Fletch, the list goes on. I loved them; consider it a lack of imagination. But at age twelve, I befriended a girl who read real books. In her attempts to smarten me up, she insisted that I read To Kill a Mockingbird and harassed me until I agreed.

The book changed my life. Never had I read a novel of such humanity and meaning. Had I ever in my elementary school education read a book with a theme? I marveled at Atticus Finch’s bravery in his defense of a falsely accused African-American in 1930s Alabama. I appreciated the realistic, unapologetic resolution to the trial—no sugar-coated ending here. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great story for children who are learning how think critically and dispel the ignorance of past generations. But it is also a story for us all; it reminds us to question our prejudices, to stand and fight for justice and equality in our society. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me that a novel could entertain and enlighten, a book could mean something and communicate powerful messages about human character and decency. It deserves its popularity. It begs to be read and discussed.

So why is To Kill a Mockingbird one of the most challenged and banned books in America? It has been attacked as inappropriate for children because of racial slurs, profanity, and its frank depictions of rape. The book has been challenged as being racist and perpetuating African-American stereotypes and the paternalism of liberal South whites. Expounding on this idea, Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker discussing “Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism.”