Monday, May 09, 2011

Is To Kill A Mockingbird Love A Generational Thing?

The Long Life of a Mockingbird appears in the most recent The Horn Book. In it, author Chelsey Philpott talks about Mockingbird's impact on popular culture and young adult literature.

I find To Kill a Mockingbird a lot like Catcher in the Rye in that it is an adult book that has cast a very long shadow on YA literature. Just as there have been many books in which unhappy teen boys have discovered that life sucks since Holden Caulfield whined his way into American literature, there have been plenty of books in which girls learn something big and meaningful about life while living in small towns, surrounded by eccentric, kind of mystical, small town characters. That business about learning something...anything...may be the reason these adult books became part of the high school canon.

But questions have arisen over just how meaningful young readers find Catcher. To Kill a Mockingbird came up in a recent booky correspondence with my nephew, the elementary school teacher, and he described it as a title that was shoved down their throats when he was in high school. He definitely didn't seem to find it highly significant in any way, and I haven't run into any other people his age who embrace it.

Certainly not the way I embraced it when I was in my early teens and reading it on my own, before anyone started teaching it. It was probably one of the first "literary" adult novels I read. I'm guessing my experience was similar to that of many readers my generation--the generation that places books on reading lists and approves them for teaching in classrooms. We loved it, we think we learned something from it, so it must be important enough to teach to another generation.

When I reread Mockingbird a second time, maybe twenty or thirty years after my first reading, it held up pretty well. But I didn't see it as some meaningful work about racism. Instead, it seemed like a daddy book to me. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But wouldn't father worship make an interesting class discussion with YAs. "What? There are people who worship their fathers? Why?"

My experience teaching Sunday school in a main stream Protestant church also raised a big question for me regarding Mockingbird. "'Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.' That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something...," Scout says. As a Catholic child at the time I was reading the book, that was a powerful statement. But my children didn't hear a lot about sin in their religious instruction, and I suspect our church wasn't alone in avoiding discussion of that concept with the young. "Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." What does that mean to someone who hasn't had a good, strong education in just what sin is and what it means to be a sinner?

If To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye don't maintain their position in the YA canon, and I, personally, think they won't, it will be interesting to see what adolescents are being taught in another twenty years or so.

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