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Posted at 10:34 AM ET, 07/11/2010

Why ‘Mockingbird’ has been challenged

By Valerie Strauss

Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ may be considered a classic but that doesn’t mean everybody likes it.

Some literary critics over the years have argued that there is too little ambiguity in the characters for it to be considered really great. Initial reviews after the 1960 publication -- which marks its 50th anniversary Sunday -- were mixed; an August 1960 review by Phoebe Adams in The Atlantic Monthly called it “pleasant, undemanding reading” and “sugar-water served with humor.”

But by 1999, the only book Lee ever published was named “best novel of the century” by a poll of librarians done by Library Journal.

Meanwhile, the book ranks high on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books; it was 40 from 1990-99, and then jumped to 21 from 2000-2009. The book’s racial slurs, profanity, and frank discussion of rape have driven the challenges, which are tallied when someone asks that a work be removed from in school curriculum or a library, thus seeking to restrict access to others.

The following is a list of challenges to the book over the years, citing the reasons. In some cases the result is not known but the library association considers any challenge important to document because censorship attempts can lead to voluntary censorship of expression by people who wish to avoid controversy.

Here is a history of challenges to the book as kept by the American Library Association:

*Eden Valley, Minnesota, 1977. Temporarily banned due to words "damn" and "whore lady" used in the novel.

*Vernon Verona Sherill School District in New York, 1980. Challenged as a "filthy, trashy novel."

*Warren Township Schools in Indiana, 1981. Challenged because the book does "psychological damage to the positive integration process" and "represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature." After unsuccessfully banning Lee’s novel, three black parents resigned from the township human relations advisory council.

*Waukegan School District in Illinois, 1984. Challenged because the novel uses a racial epithet.

*Park Hill Junior High School in Missouri, 1985. Challenged because the novel "contains profanity and racial slurs.

*Casa Grand Elementary School District in Arizona, 1985. Retained on a supplemental eighth grade reading list despite protests by black parents and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who charged the book was unfit for junior high use.

*Santa Cruz schools in California, 1995. For racial themes.

*Southwood High School Library in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, 1995. Removed because the book’s language and content were deemed objectionable.

*Moss Point School District in Mississippi, 1969. Challenged because the novel contains a racial epithet.

*Lindale, Texas, Advanced Placement English reading list, 1996. Banned because the book "conflicted with the values of the community."

*Glynn County, Georgia, 2001. Challenged by school board member because of profanity. The novel was retained.

*Muskogee High School in Oklahoma, 2001. Returned to the freshman reading list despite complaints over the years from black students and parents about racial slurs in the text.

*Normal Community High Schools in Illinois, 2003. Challenged in sophomore literature class as being degrading to African Americans.

*Stanford Middle School in Durham, North Carolina, 2004. Challenged because the novel uses a racail epithet.

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 11, 2010; 10:34 AM ET
Categories:  Literature  | Tags:  banned books, challenged books, challenges to mockingbird, mockingbird, reviews of mockingbird, reviews of to kill a mockingbird, to kill a mockingbird  
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Agree with Phoebe Adams; not great literature. But, fine for adolescents as an extended read (they are offered too few) and a set piece that helps them understand the time period immediately preceding our own when Jim Crow and knee jerk racism were a fact of life.

Posted by: jane100000 | July 11, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I have seen white/latino suburban kids from "old suburbs" that now have high 30% Mexican/Af-Am student bodies become turned off by this book. The reason is that they see a disconnect between the novels themes of white racism/minority victimization and the reality of black/Mexican on white bullying/violence/stealing/self and segregation.

As an older adult, I have the context to remember a different time and place in America, but today's high school student has grown up in a world of Black History Week, Pride Clubs, special race based scholarships, and especially insincere teachers who have used minority students as props to advance their careers.

This current climate, combined with Obama's presidency and no jobs has today's liberal "white-Latino" student "verbally" mocking (among their peer group, in Family Guy style) Mockingbird. I guess the passage of time and revisionism will get us all.

Posted by: jscott28 | July 11, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

I cannot review this book from the black perspective, but from my white perspective, this book was instrumental in molding my view of segregation, prejudice and the treatment of blacks by their white counterparts. I own a copy of this book and have read it at least a dozen times. Strangely enough, this morning I was looking for a book to read and was trying to decide if I should re-read LeGuin's Earthsea books when Lee's book caught my eye and I said, "Of course!" and pulled it out. I believe this is one of the greatest anti-prejudice books ever written, hands down, and if people only see the racial slurs, the profanity (?!), and the treatment of blacks, they are entirely missing the point. I see it as a novel that challenges me to think and to look at the facts, not the skin color, in making a decision. You can't read about the trial without realizing that Tom will never get a fair shake, and it upsets me a lot as I read it to know that even if the facts showed he was innocent, he was guilty because he was black and the girl was white. As my young daughter said, when I told her that people objected to this book because of the treatment of blacks in it, "That is just stupid. That is what this book is about, that blacks aren't treated right and you can't show people that by not writing about it." I understand that blacks may have a totally different view of this book. They should read "Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by an African American author, Mildred Taylor. It tells a similar story of the treatment of blacks in the south from the black perspective and is an excellent book.

Posted by: jennypulczinski | July 11, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

To Kill A Mockingbird is now required reading in many public schools. In reality this has very little to do with education but more to do with the parents who see To Kill A Mockingbird as safe.

Great movie but the supposedly hero worshiping of blacks for Atticus in the movie is over the top and makes me cringe. People should not be overly grateful for being treated to common decency.

I believe that the schools should revert back to having Julius Caesar as required reading in a social science class.

Imagine a class where students are asked to find comparisons with current politicians and politics.

The play Julius Caesar can be viewed as the greatest piece in literature written in regard to politics.

Also imagine students being shown the manipulation of Cassius of Brutus being shown as an example of peer pressure.

Just imagine if the schools used Othello to teach students about office politics in corporations.

Perhaps Shakespeare is pretty dead in our schools not because he is out of date but because of all the revealing things he could teach us of our own times.

Please no more To Kill A Mockingbird articles. Great movie and okay book but this is too much. Also the schools can get rid of The Catcher in Rye.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 11, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I gre up a little after the time described. I experienced racisim, but not in so obvious a way. The fact the kids today experience less of this makes it all the more important for them to read it. I also recall that, in the book, Atticus makes it clear that this case is important and he must take it even though it takes him away from and even puts his family in danger. I wonder if kids today think that there is anything their parents do that could legitimately be more important than they are.

Posted by: didnik | July 11, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

The trial is tedious, the black people are all Noble rather than real, and the main character is too good to be true. Very boring book, frankly.

However, the individual chapter of Atticus shooting the mad dog is brilliant.

I know people have speculated that Truman Capote had a lot to do with the book, which would explain why she only wrote one novel (he disintegrated after In Cold Blood). I can't find anything definitive on that.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | July 12, 2010 12:54 AM | Report abuse

The value of "Mockingbird" in class depends on how much the teacher knows about the period. How many teachers, for example, point out that the whites who supported Atticus (Miss Maudie, etc.) were economically secure? How many point out the racism of the Finches having Calpurnia as practically one of the family, yet Scout and Jem didn't know anything about her family? How many point out the complexity of the newspaper editor hating blacks yet standing guard with a shotgun to prevent a lynching? For that matter, how many of today's students understand that Jem and Scout walking home from the pageant after dark by themselves was not at all unusual in a small town in those days?

If the book is such an undemanding read, why did the seniors I taught it to totally miss the significance of the cooking odors of possum, etc., fading when the Finches passed the Ewell's house? (The students said, "They must have finished dinner already." Some were shocked when I suggested that maybe it showed the Ewells were too poor to have even that kind of food.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 12, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

The students said, "They must have finished dinner already." Some were shocked when I suggested that maybe it showed the Ewells were too poor to have even that kind of food.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids
I wonder about teachers sometimes.

The kids were right.

How can you be "too poor" to get food that only requires you to shoot it or trap it?

Possums move very slowly and you can probably kill one with a rock since they pretend that they are dead.

The book seems to be more demanding for the teachers than the students.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 12, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in the country, and although we certainly weren't poor, my father and brothers hunted. If we had had to depend on their hunting skills, we would have starved. First, you have to be able to afford the gun--remember, Bob Ewell came after Jem and Scout with a butcher knife--and the ammunition. Then you have to have the energy to go into the woods and skill to find the game and shoot it. Then you need the facilities to gut and skin it. Someone in the family also needs the knowledge to cook it--wild game, especially possums and muskrats, can be totally inedible if you don't know what to do with it. (Not to mention needing a father responsible and sober enough to want to provide for his family.)

Anyone who thinks living off the land is easy should try it.

The point of the passage is that, for whatever reason, the Ewells lacked even the little their neighbors had.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 12, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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