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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird addresses the terrible impact of racism in America through a little girl's point of view. The story takes place in Depression-era Alabama, in the fictional town of Maycomb, which Lee patterned after her own hometown of Monroeville. The narrator, 6-year-old Scout Finch, and her brother Jem and their friend Dill play children's games, but they also have a clear view of the adults in their world. Their youth and innocence contrasts with the prejudice, cruelty, and poverty they often observe. There's some threatened and real violence in this Pulitzer Prize winner: A man breaks a child's arm; a rabid dog is shot and killed; there is a stabbing death; the children and their father, Atticus Finch, confront a lynch mob; and the court case at the center of the novel involves a Black man who's been accused of raping and beating a white woman. Some of this violence is whiskey-fueled, as well. The children in the novel learn powerful lessons about the impact of poverty and prejudice, and the importance of empathy, and so will those who read this classic. The 1962 film version starring Gregory Peck is one of those rare films that truly does justice to the original book. The audiobook read by Sissy Spacek is also note-perfect.
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What's the story?
Growing up in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression, Scout Finch -- the narrator of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD -- and her brother, Jem, are being raised by their widowed father, Atticus. Some interesting characters live on their street, both seen and unseen. Dill Harris comes to stay with Scout and Jem's next-door neighbor Rachel Haverford every summer, and the three children develop a close friendship. Elderly Mrs. Dubose shouts insults at the neighbors from her porch. Miss Maudie offers the children friendly advice and baked goods. The young Finches are scared of the Radleys' house, as creepy stories are circulated about Mr. Radley and his sons, especially Arthur, also known as Boo. The children enjoy re-enacting make-believe versions of the stories they've heard about Boo. Scout goes through some growing pains in the story, as her first day of school goes poorly and Jem becomes less willing to play with his little sister. Atticus encourages his daughter to exhibit empathy and patience with others, and he warns both his children that tough times may be coming to their little family; they may hear things that upset them, and he wants them to keep cool. The children learn that Atticus, an attorney, has taken the case of a Black man who has been accused of raping and beating a White woman. The events that unfold surrounding the trial and its aftermath teach the children a lot about their father's inner strength and wisdom, and the effects of racism and poverty on their community.
Is it any good?
Told through the eyes of a child, Harper Lee's magnum opus may seem to take a simplistic point of view, but Scout's world is rich and complex, and the author doesn't stint when it comes to the realities Black people face in a racist society, and the pressures that poverty puts on the Maycomb community. All that said, Lee's story is about a White family and is told from a White perspective. The reader learns much about the history of the Finch family and very little about Tom Robinson's life other than what's revealed through Scout and her father. This is a beautifully written book, with important lessons to teach, but readers should also be encouraged to read great writing by Black Americans, such as Richard Wright and Toni Morrison.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the prejudice exhibited by some characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Could this story take place today? How have American attitudes about race changed since the 1930s? How have they remained the same?
This story is told through the eyes of a little girl. What does the author achieve by making Scout the narrator? How does this affect the way the story unfolds?
What does Boo Radley represent in the story? Why do you think the children enjoy re-creating stories they've heard about him?
- Author: Harper Lee
- Genre: Literary Fiction
- Topics: Activism, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, Great Boy Role Models, Great Girl Role Models, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Time Warner Books
- Publication date: July 11, 1960
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 11 - 18
- Number of pages: 281
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: August 12, 2020
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