We recently wrapped up The Big Read initiative here in Charlotte. This program, created and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, has been presented in lucky communities around the country. Each community chooses a book that everyone is encouraged to read and discuss in an effort to bring the community together and foster a love of reading. Here in Mecklenburg County, the program has been facilitated by the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, and the book we’ve focused our attention on for the event is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Like many people, I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in high school. I read it along with the rest of my English class freshman year. I know I liked the book then, but I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. I had always meant to reread the book and this initiative gave me the motivation to do so.
I had read a rave review of the audiobook version narrated by Sissy Spacek, so this time around I listened to the book. Of course, the book was wonderful and touched me on a much deeper emotional level as an adult than it had as a teenager. I don’t know how to express it other than it seemed more “real” this time. I guess I’ve experienced things in my life over the last seventeen years that helped me better grasp both the harshness of the racism in the book as well as the strength of Atticus’ character. Sissy Spacek does indeed breathe new life into the novel with her reading. Her soft Southern lilt is just right for this story and perfectly conveys Scout’s childish innocence in the face of humorous episodes as well as the more serious subject matter of the novel.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an inspiring book, and many authors have been drawn to the themes of Harper Lee’s novel in the years since it was published. During The Big Read I took the time to read a few recent novels inspired by Mockingbird.
I came upon the first book by accident. I had no idea it had anything to do with Mockingbird until I started reading it. At the ALA Midwinter Conference in Denver, I picked up an ARC of Freaky Monday, a sequel to Mary Rodgers’ classic Freaky Friday. In the original Freaky book, thirteen-year-old Annabel switches places with her mother and each gains a better appreciation of the other’s life. In the sequel, Mary Rodgers, along with screenwriter Heather Hach, revisits the switching places plot device. In this story, teenager Hadley swaps bodies with her English teacher Ms. Pitt. The English class is studying (what else?) To Kill a Mockingbird, and as Hadley and Ms. Pitt read the famous quote together, they switch places and end up truly walking in each other’s shoes. After spending time living each other’s lives both Hadley and Ms. Pitt gain perspective about their own lives as well. This book contains much of the humor found in Freaky Friday, and many kids will be able to identify with Hadley’s overscheduled life. One drawback to the book may be the heavy use of pop culture references that might date it very quickly. But overall this was a good read and a nice companion to the original.
Next I read In Search of Mockingbird by Loretta Ellsworth. As Erin’s sixteenth birthday approaches, the news that her widower father is about to remarry increases her desire to learn more about the mother she lost early in life. Since talking about her mother is difficult for Erin’s father and older brothers, she turns to her mother’s teenage diary and tattered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for information. Erin discovers that she shares her mother’s love of not only To Kill a Mockingbird, but also writing. So Erin compulsively sets out on a bus trip to Alabama to meet the reclusive Harper Lee and make a connection with her deceased mother. As with many literary journeys, Erin grows and learns more about herself along the way. This novel was well-written, but its short length left me wanting more when I was finished.
The final book, Also Known As Harper, was also an ARC from Denver. It was also my favorite of the three Mockingbird-related titles. Harper Lee Morgan, named for her mother’s favorite author, is a fifth-grade aspiring poet who doesn’t have the best home life. Her alcoholic father has left Harper, her mother, and her younger brother Hemingway with little to live on. Even though her mother struggles to make ends meet, when too many months go by without being able to pay the rent the family is forced out of their home and into a motel. There Harper and Hemingway meet families living in even worse conditions than themselves. In this novel, author Ann Haywood Leal takes a realistic look at homelessness, which is, unfortunately, a very timely issue right now. She creates characters who put a real face on poverty. The characters are well-developed, and despite their challenges they exemplify strength and determination. The story could become very depressing or heavy-handed, but instead Leal manages to infuse it with hope. I highly recommend this realistic fiction middle grade title.