It is always a sad day when a significant children’s literature author passes, and this week was a sad one when we said good-bye to Nelle Harper Lee. Going under the penname of Harper Lee, she will always be remembered as an American author who wrote one of the most recognized titles in the United States and showed the world what living in the South was like.
Of course made famous by her Pulitzer–Prize-winning book To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee is an influential author who taught us about racial inequality and injustice during our grade-school years—the book is still widely part of the American elementary education curriculum. Since its publication, the book has been translated in 40 languages and continues to sell in record numbers.
But what about this novel read by a young audience makes it so profound? One scholar Gregory Jay states: “The consensus interpretation of the novel, generally confirmed by how it has been taught in schools, focuses on the moral lesson of empathy as the cardinal virtue and urgent program of racial liberalism”—but that is not all. Jay states that not only is this novel a prevalent didactic tool of antiracist morality, but “Recently, this consensus has been interrupted by critical analyses of ‘sexual otherness’ in the novel and its many sly ways of subverting gender normativity.” He comments that perhaps there is more behind the stereotyped portal of blacks, and objectification of their subjectivity demonstrates another command of the white, heteronormative, dominant culture that comes from looking at the “destabilization of heterosexuality,” a close reading that looks beyond the more common anti-racist campaign.
Also, as seen in Graeme Dunphy’s article “Meena's Mockingbird: From Harper Lee to Meera Syal,” post-colonial reading of Lee’s works have allowed new books that deal with childhood experiences surrounding racism, such as Anita and Me, the opportunity to show a way of overcoming obstacles of oppression through its narrative. Dunphy connects the titles stating, “The world is seen through the eyes of a young girl as she is growing up, and the strength of both authors is the skill with which they parody their respective juvenile vernaculars” (643). Dunphy turns our attention, as readers, to the innocence and naivety presented within a youthful and inexperienced narrator’s perspective. This allows each book to present the reader with harsh sociological challenges that, through the eyes of a child, suggest the irony of how books can teach diversity and respect for all through such a perspective—a demonstration of childhood innocence as a segue into the harsh realities of society.
And while there are many interesting ways to look and talk about Lee’s historic and influential work, the fact remains that there is a sense of timelessness that one finds with To Kill A Mockingbird and the lessons on empathy that it attempts to promote. So maybe not all didactic texts are taking away from the childhood experience, because what Harper Lee’s work does is expose childhood innocence as a way of productively working through social issues and pushing for positive and open-minded outlooks into future generations.
Dunphy, Graeme. "Meena's Mockingbird: From Harper Lee to Meera Syal." Neophilologus, 88.4 (2004): 637-659.
Gregory, Jay. “Queer Children and Representative Men: Harper Lee, Racial Liberalism, and the Dilemma of To Kill a Mockingbird”. American Literary History. 2015. 27: 487-522.