Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending the better part of a school day engaging with students as they checked out To Kill a Mockingbird for their American Literature classes. Class after class of students commented as they checked out this classic work that they knew the book was going to be good when the pages were worn and the spine was taped up (see photo). It was a spot-on observation that made me smile. Some books checked out for class reading are returned to the media center looking untouched, and probably abandoned in favor of SparkNotes or Thug Notes. To Kill a Mockingbird is not one of those books. The copies of Mockingbird come back to the media center dog-eared and well-used. Mockingbird is the type of story that our students value most–a story that is relatable, and at the same time calls us out, makes us feel challenged, and inspires us to question our world view.
I was saddened this week to read The Associated Press article School District Temporarily Pulls Classics After Complaint and to learn that Accomack County Public School System was temporarily suspending use of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn after a parent submitted a complaint about the effect the language, particularly racial slurs, in these books could have on students. I appreciate reading about a parent coming forward to voice her concern at a school board meeting, which is an appropriate and effective forum for civic engagement. (Click here for audio of the Accomack County, Virginia November 15, 2016 School Board Meeting) I am horrified, though, that the school system’s review process apparently includes suspending the titles in question while they are under review. Surely, there could have been some less drastic measure taken, such as offering an alternative text for this individual student while going through the process of addressing the parent’s concern.
I am a champion of reading choice. As a high school media specialist, that means I provide access to a wide diversity of information and stories. While the Accomack story centers around two classic works presented in the classroom, I am concerned as a parent and a librarian that a piece of valued literature could be so quickly “suspended” from use by students school wide after a single parent complaint. I want my son, who is in high school, to have the benefit of exploring challenging literature with a professional educator who will help him navigate the inquiry process spurred by his reading. Removing texts that are uncomfortable is contrary to that.
Stories are important. Especially the ones that make us uncomfortable. Words are important. And, the stories that resonate with readers do not shy away from words authentic to their time, place, and situation. Stories like To Kill a Mockingbird touch students by personalizing history. These stories also provide a platform for students to explore challenging topics, such as prejudice (historically and today), our country’s ongoing civil rights struggle, “fitting in” to society, failures of the justice system, and personal morality. We simply can’t afford to remove access to stories that help give students the context to grapple with complex issues.
Diversity in Literature
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story is an inspiring look at the importance of exposure to a wide range of stories that reflect ourselves and those around us.
To Kill a Mockingbird
In my own high school media center, I can’t keep To Kill a Mockingbird on the shelf. Our students check Mockingbird out to read for their English, they choose it for independent novel assignments, and they read (or reread) the book for pleasure.
Roy Newquiest’s 1964 WQXR interview with Harper Lee in which Lee talks about her writing habits, her opinion of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Southern people, and her book.
Jamie LaRue’s September 2016 School Library Journal article All Schools Need Book Challenge Policies
American Library Association
The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. You can learn more about this topic in relation to librarianship by exploring the following links: