Why Do We Keep Fighting Over ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’?
Here are some alternative titles that tackle similar themes
Recently, a school in Virginia removed copies of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from classrooms—and the county is considering banning them completely—after a complaint by a mother citing the racist language they contain. “There is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is,” Marie Rothstein-Williams said. And she has a point. Now, for the record, banning books is ridiculous. No one should ban books. Any book can be taught in schools as long as teachers are willing to have conversations with children about their context—we don’t live in a vacuum here. It’s better to have our eyes open than closed.
But the news made me think—why exactly are we we still clinging so hard to To Kill a Mockingbird in our classrooms? It’s a great work of literature, of course, but surely there are other novels out there, novels that might be just as compelling and instructive for young readers—or even more so. This isn’t to knock To Kill a Mockingbird, but part of getting kids to become lifelong readers is giving them books they can relate to at a young age—and maybe, in 2016, Harper Lee’s examination of morality and race in Great Depression-era Alabama isn’t that relatable. (There’s a larger conversation about how we stick to all books recognized in the canon to the detriment of more contemporary fare in general, but we’ll leave it there for now.) So here are a few relatively recent novels that all touch on some of the same themes as To Kill a Mockingbird—like social inequality, justice, and plain old growing up—and that I at least wouldn’t be sorry to see taught in more schools.
Jacqueline Woodson, Hush
In this novel, a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature (which Woodson later won for Brown Girl Dreaming), a young girl’s life is completely changed—we’re talking witness protection—when her father, a police officer, testifies to seeing two of his white colleagues kill an unarmed black boy. The novel echoes To Kill a Mockingbird in its themes of racial tensions, doing the right thing in the face of intense societal pressure, and family.
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, All American Boys
If only the themes of racial inequality that streak through Lee’s novel were as out of date as the language she uses. In this timely novel, a black teenager named Rashad gets mistaken for a shoplifter and beaten up by a police officer—Quinn, Rashad’s schoolmate and best friend of the officer’s son (and white), sees it happen. The novel alternates between both boys’ perspectives, creating a powerful conversation about prejudice, violence, and race.
Jeff Zentner, The Serpent King
One of the best YA depictions of small town Southern life in recent memory—the town in question is named after the founder of the KKK—this novels tells the story of three misfit friends fighting to make it through (and out). An updated take on Lee’s beloved Southern Gothic.
Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
These books are not particularly like Harper Lee’s classic, it’s true. But I’ve always imagined Lyra Belacqua as the fantasy-world (and slightly grown-up) version of Scout—a wild, brave tomboy who has an uncanny effect on those around her—and who is determined to get the truth.
R.J. Palacio, Wonder
The protagonist of this novel, Auggie, is a middle-schooler with a facial deformity, who heads into the shark-infested waters of private after years of home schooling. Shades of “Boo” Radley here—or at least the idea of him—as well as a story that echoes To Kill a Mockingbird‘s values of kindness, compassion, and standing up for yourself and others.
Walter Dean Myers, Monster
The thing everything remembers about To Kill a Mockingbird is the trial—when Atticus Finch decides to defend a young black man accused of rape. Walter Dean Myers’ Monster takes the other side, telling the story of the trial a black teenager who is accused of participation in a violent crime. But is he really a “monster”?
Justin Torres, We the Animals
Torres’ slim wonder of a book isn’t primarily a YA novel, though I do think it perfectly appropriate for Young Adults as well as Regular Adults. The experience of the protagonist here couldn’t be much more different than Scout’s, but like hers, this is a coming-of-age story that causes no little pain—and I haven’t come across many books that portray the ferocity of childhood nearly as well.
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Here’s another novel written for adults that I think teenagers would enjoy. The setting—France and Germany during WWII—is worlds away from Harper Lee’s Great Depression-era Alabama, but the major themes—of compassion, courage, and the complexities of human morality in the face of life-or-death drama—echo one another.
Watch: Jacqueline Woodson talks to Lit Hub at the National Book Awards on writing what matters instead of what sells.