Since 1982 the American Library Association and Amnesty International have set aside a week in September to discuss controversial literature, and uphold our protected right to read it. Banned Books Week is a declaration of freedom to read and learn. It also underscores the dangers faced by people like authors, editors, and publishers who promote restricted work. Perhaps no group is as entrenched in the world of books, or as aware of the reactions they can evoke, as librarians. This recent piece from Book Riot details some of the big and small ways local librarians steward access to the written word, ensuring wide representation in their communities.
As Banned Books Week begins on September 18, it invites us to reflect upon the narratives that we choose to amplify within our communities and those we choose to silence. One text that has long provoked questions for American educators is Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In 2018, PBS identified Lee’s novel as the “most-loved” book in the United States in The Great American Read—an eight-part television series that celebrated popular texts based on a national survey that examined “how and why writers create their fictional worlds, how we as readers are affected by these stories, and what [the] 100 different books have to say about our diverse nation and our shared human experience.”
In explaining Mockingbird’s triumph over all other titles, PBS show host Meredith Vieira said: “To Kill a Mockingbird is a mirror of who we are in all our complexity. It shows us at our worst and it ends tragically, but it also offers a way forward. For this honesty and hopefulness, the book is and deserves to be our very best-loved novel.”
But if we examine the enduring controversy surrounding whether Mockingbird should be taught in schools, a more complex picture emerges. Does the book actually mirror us in all of our complexity? And who is included in and excluded from the “we” in Vieira’s statement?
Set in a small town in the Jim Crow South, Mockingbird is among the most challenged and banned books in the American literary canon despite its continuing popularity amongst much of the reading public. While some schools have banned the book out of concern for the disproportionate emotional burden its racist language places on Black students, others insist that teaching the text is a crucial component of facing our collective history of racial injustice. But what is often obscured in these debates are more fundamental questions about why this book continues to be held up as the definitive literary account of racial injustice.
Mockingbird is a text that is narrated by a young white child whose understanding of the racist world around her is facile at best. And her idealized portrayal of the story’s apparent hero—her father, a white lawyer who defends a Black man accused of raping a white woman—leaves little room for an account of the Black characters’ agency on their own behalf. In fact, the experiences and perspectives of the Black characters are all but absent from the text as the white characters’ feelings, anxieties, and false sense of heroism fill its pages.
Regardless of whether a given school district elects to teach Mockingbird, the popular notion that Vieira articulated—that this text delivers an indispensable depiction of “who we are in all our complexity”—needs to be disrupted wherever it is read and discussed. As Dominican-American educator Lorena Germán wrote of Mockingbird, “[w]ithout interrogating...its flaws, or digging deeper, teachers uphold the racism it presents.” One way that we must dig deeper is by ensuring that the voices, needs, and experiences of people who have actually been targeted by racism are brought from margin to center.
And yet, data shows that the kinds of narratives that actually do center people of color can be hard for some Americans to swallow. The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom reports they “tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. Most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.” A key example is Angie Thomas’ 2017 book The Hate U Give—a text that has been challenged repeatedly for providing a snapshot of the epidemic of police brutality waged on Black communities from the perspectives of Black characters themselves. Thomas’ book is one of many texts to consider pairing with Mockingbird in the classroom, and offers educators a chance to explore the continuities between contemporary police brutality and the violence that prevailed under Jim Crow.
With an understanding that Mockingbird remains a central part of the curriculum in many schools around the United States, Facing History continues to deliver resources to help educators navigate this text thoughtfully and deliberately. In our Teaching Mockingbird resource, we deliver a breakdown of how to teach each section of the text; relate essential information concerning the historical context; surface African American voices absent in the book’s narration; and recommend strategies to help students examine the construction of their own identities in relation to the themes of the book.
Despite the limitations and complexity of Mockingbird as a teaching instrument, we maintain that with the right tools and support, educators can promote critical thinking and equity when they bring this text into the classroom. We invite you to use our Teaching Mockingbird resource as you plan your lessons and encourage you to share your own creative approaches to teaching the text in the comments.