Librarians on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
Updated Feb. 19, 2016:
We’re saddened to learn of the death of Harper Lee at age 89. Her work—especially her incredibly vivid characters—touched the lives of millions of readers, including many of us here at the Library, so we’re republishing this post from June about our feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee’s 1960 classic touches a chord in almost everyone who reads it—including (maybe especially) librarians.
As we prepare for the July 14 release of Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, we asked our NYPL colleagues for personal reflections on the first time they read To Kill a Mockingbird: Where were you, and how old were you? What struck you about the story or characters? And what stuck with you?
I was probably in the 7th or 8th grade when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. Having grown up in a relatively sleepy and homogeneous community, I had a hard time understanding the turbulent world that Scout inhabited at first, but eventually the book woke me up to a lot of the injustices that were going on beyond the small town I lived in. It was the first time I was exposed to literature with a meaningful political dimension.
This was an especially powerful awakening for me, since I felt so closely bonded to Scout. Like her, I too was curious (read: nosy) and eager to be a part of the adult world, so reading To Kill a Mockingbird was super immersive in that I felt like I was with Scout as she related her story, almost as if I was seeing the book's plot unfold through my own eyes.
Since the sequel, Go Set a Watchman, is told by an all-grown-up Scout, I'm really looking forward to finding out if I still feel that same affinity with her. —Nancy Aravecz, Mid-Manhattan
I remember first reading it in 8th-grade English, and loving how Atticus spoke so gently to his children but never talked down to them. He spoke to them about justice in a way that was powerful, but also completely understandable to them (and me). And, of course, I loved that Scout dressed as a ham for Halloween. —Ronni Krasnow, Morningside Heights
I must have been in middle school when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. I couldn't believe that the United States had been that horribly segregated. My father had grown up in the Deep South, in New Orleans, and I remember asking him if that was really how it was.
“Worse,” he said. “There's a reason why I left.”
But he made sure I understood that just as there was evil in the Jim Crow South, there were also good people trying to make a difference, like Atticus and my grandmother Claire and great aunts. This book always reminds me of my courageous relatives and that it’s always worth fighting the good fight, no matter the consequences. —Anne Rouyer, Mulberry Street
My first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird was in response to having seen the movie. The image that sticks with me the most from my childhood reading/viewing (and I have a little trouble separating the book from the film, I must admit!) is Scout discovering Boo Radley, not a monster but a friend. —Danita Nichols, Inwood
I read it for the first time when I was 11 over the summer. I was very aware of the civil rights movement and totally ignorant of small-town Southern society, so I was struck by Aunt Alexandra and Lee's comparisons of her rules of female behavior, compared to Maudie or Calpurnia. —Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Exhibitions
To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book I read that made me feel like an adult. I was 13 and I bought a copy of it to bring with me to summer camp. I knew it was a classic, but no one told me to read it. I finished the book in three days.
And when I came home two months later, my mother found it in my bag and asked me what I thought. I loved it and told her so. And she agreed with me!
Sometimes there's not much a 12-year-old girl and her mother can agree on, but it was a gorgeous feeling to discuss this book with my mom and feel we were speaking the same language. —Amy Geduldig, Communications & Marketing
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in 5th or 6th grade. I think I also watched the film for 12 Angry Men for the first time as part of the same class, and together they really set the stage for my understanding of lawyering and how the jury system works.
The names: Scout, Jem, Boo, are really vivid when you're a kid, and the story kept my rapt attention. —Jenny Baum, Jefferson Market
I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird on the bus to and from school in 10th grade and truly being transported to that time and place. I was just beginning to understand and appreciate symbolism in literature, and I remember being particularly moved by the central symbol of the mockingbird, and the message that to kill innocent songbirds, who only sing for us, is wrong. —Susan Tucker Heimbach, Mulberry Street
Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your picks! Leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend.