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Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

This is another of ALA’s most frequently challenged books.  When a book is challenged it means someone (someone lame) has officially petitioned to have the book removed from library shelves.  Sometimes libraries (lame libraries) capitulate.  But usually libraries say “puh-leeeeeeeezzzzz” and the book stays. Luckily we’ve still got To Kill A Mockingbird.

Sooooooooo good!

Sooooooooo good!

I’m usually too lazy to look at blog stats.  But last week I actually checked to see what the most-viewed pages on World’s Strongest Librarian are.  It was a shock, and not an unpleasant one.  Other than the home page of WSL–the first page you land on–nothing has received more views than my review of Where The Wild Things Are, another of the banned or challenged books.

This tells me a couple of things:

1.  You’re all even cooler than I thought

2. Once in a while I actually write something that someone might actually type into a search engine.  I’ve yet to get any search engine traffic hits on “freshwater cyclops” or “the singing stone” or “Josh Hanagarne–King of Kings.”  But people are finding the book reviews, and that makes me happier than a freshwater cyclops could ever be.

To Kill A Mockingbird

This book might be the most beautiful thing out there.  I don’t say book, because to me, To Kill A Mockingbird is an event, a force of nature–it’s a lot more than a book.  I even like the movie more than I can explain.

The real magic of this story is that it is told through the eyes of a child, and it never strays from that perspective.  Lots of books try to see things through a child’s eyes, and they either pull it off once in  a while or just sound terrible.

Back in The Day, there was a rash of baby talk poetry.  People were wild about lines like this:

Tind fwiends I pway extuse me,

For matin’ any speech

betause I is so ‘ittle

there ain’t much edutation

in such a ‘ittle head

besides I is so seepy

and wants to ‘do to bed

AAAAH!  As bad as that is, I don’t think authors who try to write like children and then fail at it are much better. I can’t do it either, but I don’t try to write like a child, although Janette tells me I am getting more childish with each post. But what does she know?  She wasn’t even clever enough to avoid marrying me.

But To Kill A Mockingbird is spot on in its portrayal of innocent children learning ugly and beautiful lessons about the world of adults.

Why To Kill A Mockingbird gets challenged

  • It shows racism
  • It has profanity in it
  • It’s too awesome to be on the shelves

Any negative To Kill A Mockingbird book review is likely to focus on those first two points.

Those first two bullets are exactly why the book is so good. People who challenge TKAM say “I don’t want my children learning about racism or hearing profanity.”  To those people, I would just suggest that children are going to learn about these things one way or another.

This is just my two cents, but I have a little boy now.  I’m not going to pretend that I can protect Max from racism and profanity.  I also can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to teach him about in on the timetable I’d like.  I mean, when is the right time?  But the longer I wait, the longer the chance that he’ll find out on his own, on someone else’s terms.

If he was to read To Kill A Mockingbird, he could see things in terms he could understand–through the eyes of another child.  At no point does Harper Lee say “Racism is bad” or “Rape is an abomination” or “Adults can be horrible and violent and disgraceful and honorable.”  But the stories she tells in the book say exactly these things.  I feel that they resonate on a level children could understand–or, if not, they might prompt the questions that would suggest to me that the time was right to talk to Max about certain things.

In some ways, To Kill A Mockingbird reminds me of the best Kurt Vonnegut.  Kurt was the master of indicting humanity, but he rarely spelled things out.  He would show us a story that said it better than words could–and I was always helpless to find anything else in his work besides what he wanted to.

That’s my long-winded way of saying “Harper Lee I love you and I wish you would have kept writing but if you only had one book in you I’m glad it was this one.”

I’m adding To Kill A Mockingbird to the Banned Book Store.  If you don’t buy it, please go get it at the library.  If you’ve read it, let’s talk in the comments section.


And, if you’re looking for another book I read as a kid that’s still relevant to me today check out this Where The Wild Things Are book review.

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  • Tim July 24, 2009, 12:04 pm

    Hi Josh:

    It has been a lonnnggg time since I read TKAM, but it reminds me of Huck Finn in the way that it has been portrayed as racist. I enjoy reading about your passion for this book…I will have to re-read this soon. I don’t think you’ve covered it, but I’d love to hear your take on any of James Joyce’s books. I meant to read Ulysses in time to coincide with Bloomsbury, but didn’t get to it.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 24, 2009, 12:06 pm

      Hey Tim. I’ll work up a couple of things on Joyce next week for you. It’s hard to be objective about Joyce for me. What I mean is, I can appreciate the scope and breadth of what he accomplished with Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, but it doesn’t make them fun for me to read. I’ll start thinking about it. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • fontaine July 24, 2009, 12:37 pm

    I loved the book as a kid. I really loved the movie as a kid. As an adult I still love them both.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 24, 2009, 3:52 pm

      @fontaine. Yes, I didn’t mention the movie. Fantastic stuff. A couple of times a year I meet someone named Atticus and I always believe their parents saw the movie or read the book.

  • We Fly Spitfires July 24, 2009, 3:12 pm

    I’ve never read TKAM. I suppose it’s one of those books that I immediately disregarded just because old people told me it was a classic. Now that I’m older, and wiser, I suppose I’ll need to check it out.

    Thanks for the review. Very interesting stuff! 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne July 24, 2009, 3:51 pm

      @WFS. You won’t be sorry. I’d love to hear what you think of it. Old people aren’t always wrong:)

  • Lori July 26, 2009, 12:06 pm

    One of my high school English teachers used to say that sometimes, a person only has one story to tell. But sometimes it’s such a great story that it’s enough. Of course he used this book as an example.

    Throughout my life, every time I encounter a situation where a person has accomplished only *one* great thing, I think of To Kill a Mockingbird. I had pretty cool teachers in high school 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne July 26, 2009, 12:14 pm

      Lori, you need to send those teachers out to Nevada to give some lessons to the ones who tried to teach us. Not that cool.

  • Kelly Diels July 27, 2009, 4:01 pm

    To Kill a Mockingbird is my very favourite book ever. Ever. It is genius and the heart and compassion and honesty of it is unparalleled. I wish I could write like that. Harper Lee = genius.

    Terrific book review, as always.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 27, 2009, 4:44 pm

      Kelly, how long has it been since you read it? You’re now my wife’s hero, by the way.

  • Lori July 30, 2009, 7:43 pm

    I was really blessed, but I didn’t know it until I got to college and realized I knew how to structure an essay correctly and most people didn’t – that’s when I realized what great English teachers I had in high school.

    Funny story – I read one of your guest posts somewhere else and the only reason I clicked through to your blog is because you mentioned your height and my husband is 6’7. Then I read more of your posts and I was hooked 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne July 30, 2009, 7:57 pm

      @Lori. I’m surprise at how many people have stories about inspiring English teachers. It’s not just in the movies. I don’t care how you got here–just glad you’re here!

  • crestina August 9, 2009, 7:27 pm

    Hi, Josh, I was browsing through ProBlogger’s site and I saw your post. Anyway, I’ve read TKAM quite a long time ago and I was blown away to say the least. After reading your review, I’m planning to read it again.
    Thanks for the review…:-)

    • Josh Hanagarne August 9, 2009, 7:48 pm

      Crestina, thanks! When you’re done with TKAM again, I’d love to hear how you might look at it differently these days. It’s one of those books I think should be read about every 5 years to test our opinions and viewpoints against as we age.

  • Darien Bond August 24, 2009, 2:41 am

    To Kill a Mockingbird still appears on ALA’s list of banned books. One of the main reasons for this as you pointed out is due to its use of profanity. Apart from this, many critics point out that Harper Lee’s portrayal of African Americans as simple folk as extremely one-dimensional. These critics believe that Lee is in fact strengthening certain racial stereotypes rather than making a statement against racism. But whichever way you look at it, To Kill a Mockingbird remains as influential a novel even today. I found some interesting opinions and resource material on the novel at this site called Shmoop, if you are interested in reading more.

  • Shane Hudson September 29, 2010, 1:25 pm

    I completely agree when you said To Kill A Mockingbird is a “force of nature”, it is such a powerful book! You mentioned about people not wanting to their children to learn about all the goings on that happens in the book. Well, surely their children would not read (or understand for that matter) the book until they are ready to. I read it for GCSE, so when I was about 15 – so far I have only read it that one time but it is such a powerful book, it would be cruel NOT to be allowed to read it!