The debate around the removal of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from a Brampton, Ontario, high school earlier this summer washed not only over Toronto-area newspapers, but right here, onto January Magazine. The issues around the removal of To Kill a Mockingbird are more nuanced than they first appeared, as we witnessed under the weight of many carefully considered — and a few heated — comments to the piece we ran earlier this week.
The book has been removed from the school, but the battle is far from over, as explained today by The Toronto Star:
As the dust settles around the latest Mockingbird controversy — in which a principal at a Brampton school removed the book from Grade 10 English curriculum in June after a parent objected to language in the novel — another debate has emerged: Is there a better book to teach diverse, multiracial, multi-ethnic students in the GTA about race relations and anti-discrimination in 2009?
“It’s a great book, but how many great books, how many classics have been written over the past five decades that might do a better a job in dealing with these issues?” said George Elliott Clarke, a writer and English professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in African-Canadian literature.
And fair enough: if I were looking for a book to inform children about African-Canadian issues, well … To Kill a Mockingbird would not be the place to look. But is that why high school students are assigned reading? As I said in a comment to that earlier post, choosing books for young people to read based on the lessons we can cram in is like giving them medicine. Or Brussels sprouts. It’s good for them? Oh stop! Reading is magic. That’s the lesson we need to teach.
To Kill a Mockingbird is slender and engaging. It’s a wonderful book, in many ways, but it’s not a complicated one. Even reluctant readers might find themselves discovering fiction in a way they hadn’t before.
So replace Harper Lee’s book. OK. But do it with something that will help illuminate the place in each child that might otherwise be left dark. The place where they discover that reading is not only about accomplishment, not simply about finishing the assignment, but about the same joy and enjoyment extracted from the other activities they undertake at their leisure. That’s the lesson — the gift — that they will carry through their lifetimes. What books will accomplish that?