“So, why do we read this book?” by Christie McDonald

to kill a mockingbirdAs my grade ten class closed their copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my students shot up her hand and asked the perennial question: “So, why do we read this book?” It’s a question I get asked every year, but this time I was ready for it. Sort of.

My grade ten students are delightful. They’re inquisitive. They’re readers. They love to debate. A quick poll told me that they all enjoyed the book – more or less. They thought it was still relevant – more or less. They’ll remember Scout and Atticus  – maybe  not forever, but still… Despite all that,  they still wanted to know why we were reading something so, well, old.

In her Salon article “What makes a book a classic,” Laura Miller decides that not only is the question almost impossible to answer, it’s also “mostly pointless.” Nevertheless, my students and I had a lot of fun trying to decide what modern books should be introduced to high school classrooms. We used the criteria Miller pulled from a Goodreads discussion (the book should have stood the test of time, be filled with eternal truths, captured the essence of its time and place, have something important to say, etc) to create our own list of “classics” – or at least books that have the potential to become classics.  (You can read more of Miller’s article here: http://www.salon.com/2014/01/30/what_makes_a_book_a_classic/)

This was a truly worthwhile exercise because it allowed students to consider not only what makes a book worthy of study, but also what makes a book like To Kill a Mockingbird important. Important enough to continue to show up on school syllabuses, at any rate.

I’d like to think that good readers will find these “important” books on their own, but let’s face it, it doesn’t always happen. I consider myself a good reader and I have been a voracious one all my life, but even I have gaps in my personal canon. For example, I haven’t read every Jane Austen book, or Eliot’s Middlemarch. And I don’t think it’s just pre-20th century novels that should be considered classics, either. There are lots of modern classics I’ve never read, too; Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex have been waiting patiently on my to-be-read list forever. So many great books, so little time left in my reading hourglass.

All teachers who care about reading will understand the deep desire we have to introduce our students to really great books. I have cultivated a culture of reading in my class and despite the fact that my school has an excellent library, students (even those whom I do not teach) find their way to my classroom to borrow books from my shelves. There’s a lot to choose from including everything from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (a book I always talk about when I talk about To Kill a Mockingbird) to Stephen King’s It (a book I loaned to a grade ten student a couple years ago after he told me a book had never frightened him. Ha!) S.E. Hinton is a popular book for reluctant readers and I happily hand out copies of That Was Then, This is Now to all the students who claim the only book they’ve ever liked was The Outsiders.  I’m happy to pass on Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess to anyone I think will enjoy them. So, lots of classics, yes – but lots of Sarah Dessen and Simone Elkeles and R.L. Stine, too.

I asked one of my students why she thought so many students came to me for books and she told me it was because I had “just the right amount, not too overwhelming.” And because “you can talk about them.”

There is something so personal and intimate about having a book conversation with a student. Readers share a common language. When I can look a student in the eye and say “read this” and they do and they love what I’ve suggested, well, that makes being a teacher the most rewarding job on the planet. More than anything, I want to give my students the gift my parents gave to me: a life of reading.

So, why is To Kill a Mockingbird still in the classroom? For me, the book has a lot to teach us about tolerance and family and cruelty. I tell my students that I read so I know I’m not alone and I feel better knowing Atticus Finch exists. Will their lives be less meaningful if they haven’t read the book? Perhaps not, but I think that Mockingbird remains one of those quintessential coming of age novels, and should be read as a rite of passage. Maybe the only thing they’ll ever remember about the book is how much I love it, but that’s okay, too.

As much as I love Lee’s book, though, I loved the fact that my students felt comfortable enough to offer their favourite books for scrutiny even more.  If I can play even a small part on their journey to becoming life-long readers, I am happy to oblige.

Here’s are a few of the titles my students suggested:

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Freak the Mighty – Rodman Philbrick

The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien


Christie McDonald teaches English, Writing and Journalism in New Brunswick, Canada. She’s passionate about the written word and when she isn’t reading, she’s helping out with her school’s newspaper and yearbook. She is also one of the founding members of The Write Stuff, a writing workshop and literary arts magazine for students. She blogs about books at The Ludic Reader (theludicreader.wordpress.com). Follow her on Twitter @theludicreader or Facebook ‘The Ludic Reader’