My first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird came in sixth grade. As a reward, our classes were allowed to watch the movie during school. It was such a great story. Two years later, I was looking at the books my language arts teacher had on her library rack, and I picked up the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. With the unerring sense of an English teacher sniffing a student interested in a book, she was at my side in a moment asking me if I would like to read the book. I sheepishly put it back on the rack. I was scared to read it at that time, and I can’t think why. I had read other adult books, and one could argue that this, despite it’s cover, was not even an adult book. The cover was yellow with some adult-looking print.
I thought it looked like a mystery or a spy novel. I don’t think I put it together with the movie I had already seen.
To Kill a Mockingbird was assigned reading in my 11th grade English class (American lit.). I usually have a hard time keeping up with a school reading schedule, but I stayed ahead in this book. I devoured it. I read more than I was assigned. I was entranced by the characters. I fell in love with the book. It was the first assigned novel I read for school that I really liked.
What Harper Lee did masterfully in this book is capture real people. I knew folks just like all the characters in the book. While the book has some critics, I still consider it one of the best books I’ve ever read and one I would definitely consider worthy of its place in the literary canon. Parts of this book still have the power to make me laugh aloud and cry real tears. My favorite books have almost always been character-driven. I love good characters, and I am willing to forgive flawed writing and hackneyed plot if the characters are good. I think I trace that love of character to my first experience reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
In the years since that first reading over twenty years ago, I have had the pleasurable experience of teaching the novel, and many times, students react to it in the same way that I did. Harper Lee has famously described the novel as “a love story.” In a way, it is. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time and place. It’s a moving homage to Lee’s own father, Amasa Lee, who was her model for Atticus—Harper Lee gave Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the film, her father’s own pocket watch. It’s a loving tribute to the innocence of childhood. To Kill a Mockingbird means so many things to so many people. My personal hero Morris Dees says he became a lawyer because of Atticus Finch.
Happy 50th birthday, To Kill a Mockingbird.