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To Kill a Mocking Bird has been chosen as July's book of the month. Read more about this modern classic ...

To Kill a Mocking Bird

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird is mentioned frequently and fondly in the Our City Our Books readers’ survey. Many of you have read it a long time ago, as young adults, and some of you return to it again and again. Some readers remember it as a coming of age story and others as the first book that really opens their eyes to racial discrimination. All agree that Atticus Finch, father of Scout and Jem and defence Lawyer for Tom Robinson, is a man of honour, integrity and empathy who treats all those around him with respect.

To Kill a Mockingbird is said to be the most widely taught book on race in the United States. Sadly, as recent events have shown us, the themes in this novel are still all too real today. Racial injustice and violence are still alive and well sixty years on.

The Black Lives Matter protests, following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis, have challenged us to take another look at many aspects of our culture.

In the aftermath of this tragedy many of us are struggling with well loved works of art and literature and how people of colour and other cultures are portrayed within them.

Books and the power to change perspectives

Many lovers of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre were outraged by Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.

Published in 1966, this feminist and anti-colonial response to Brontë’s work tells the story from the point of view of Rochester’s first wife. The Englishman in this novel has an arranged marriage to the beautiful Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress. Renamed as Bertha, she is brought to England where she becomes the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. The character of Antionette, a displaced person belonging to nether her own county nor her new one, confronts the reader with many uncomfortable truths about slavery and colonialism.

One of the questions that elicits the most interesting answers from the Our City Our Books survey is ‘What book changed your mind about something?’ Many of the titles in this category surround issues of race and culture and the opening up of both in a way that creates empathy and new understanding in readers. Most readers say these books opened their eyes to other realities. While To Kill A Mockingbird was written from a white perspective and in the context of the time with the white male saviour central to the novel, for many reading it as they did in school or as young adults, it made a lasting impact about racism, inequity, empathy and perspective.

Modern resonances

Many recent titles, written by people of colour out of their own experience are groundbreaking and uncomfortable reading for white readers but encourage readers to open their minds to other experiences and perspectives. Emma Dabiri’s Don't Touch My Hair discusses the politics that surround Black women’s hair and beauty. She herself is biracial, born to a white Trinidadian mother and Black Nigerian father and talks about her hair as a “constant source of deep, deep shame” during her upbringing in Dublin.

Home Fire by British Pakistani writer Kamilla Shamsie is a loose modern reworking of Antigone and explores the effects of radicalisation on a family and the position of young Muslims as they navigate the tension between culture, society and faith in modern Britain.

Reading the Young Adult novel The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas with a group of young women lately, brought us on to the writings of Maya Angelou and James Baldwin as well as the history of The Black Panther movement. The girls themselves brought up the discrimination against Irish Travellers in this country.

Readers of the future

Kwame Alexander is a Black American writer of children and young adult novels and spoke recently about the importance of writing strong characters that young readers will identify with and how often it was the adults who asked to know the colour of the characters not the children. Children regardless of their colour or culture identified with his wisecracking cool characters in The Crossover and assumed that they were the same as them regardless of their own race. His book The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson is an illustrated brief but powerfully told history playing tribute to the Black Americans who lived and died to ensure that Black Lives Matter.

Alexander’s view that books should be a mirror as well as a window onto other worlds is shared by new children’s publisher Knights Of, founded by Aimée Felone and Dubliner David Stevens. Check out their catalogue where the emphasis is on ensuring that the diversity in the population is reflected by the characters in their books. In these great stories, children of all colours and abilities go about having adventures and solving mysteries in recognisable places like high-rise flats. A Guardian article described children coming into their pop-up shop in Brixton saying, ‘Mum this is me, this is me!’ when they saw someone who looked like them on a book cover.

Wouldn’t it be great for everyone, child and adult to feel like that?

I have realised that our emotional response to literature and culture is complex and can't remain static. Books are not only examples of creative expression and great storytelling but also have the capacity to force a re-examination of perspectives and views and develop empathy. Returning to old and loved novels is a complex issue and won’t be resolved easily. Having more open and nuanced readings of our old favourites and comfort reads may be uncomfortable at times but may also lead to new understandings and insights.

I for one am looking forward to approaching my old favourites with a warm heart and an open mind.

Bernadette Larkin

Our City Our Books Project Manager

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