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Tag Archives: School Books

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Hello readers,

I have to say, I very nearly did not write a post about To Kill a Mockingbird because, let’s face it, EVERYONE has read this book at some point in their education.  But, if you grew up under a rock and somehow missed this fantastic piece of literature in the process, go to the nearest place that sells books and buy it, read it, and love it.  It is so so so good.  And if you haven’t read it since your adolescent days, I recommend you give it a second read.  I recently read it for the first time since 8th grade to prepare to teach it and it’s amazing how much has changed for me as a reader the second time around.

So, backstory:  To Kill a Mockingbird is set in small-town Alabama during the 1930s and the narrator is Scout, a precocious tomboy, aged 6-8 throughout the novel.  The novel begins with vignettes from their small town, including some history, but mostly funny character studies from the lens of a child’s eyes as she explores her neighborhood with her older brother, Jem, and their sometimes-neighbor Dill (modeled after a young Truman Capote).  I loved this part the most when I read this as a student because I connected so much with Scout as a narrator – I remembered that child-lens through which she sees the world, and it was refreshing to relive those days and have the much coveted feeling as a teenager that you weren’t the only one who thought that way.

As the story continues, the real plot begins to unfold.  Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus (hands down my biggest literary crush of all time – even surpassing my beloved Mr. Darcy), is a lawyer who is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.  While the courtroom drama unfolds, it is as captivating as you might imagine (I can’t be the only one who gets sucked in every time any litigious event presents itself to me, can I?)  But the real story is of Atticus – the father who knows he must do the right thing to be an example to his children, but who struggles with the reality of his children dealing with the ugliness from a town who doesn’t agree with his decision.  Lee’s writing isn’t particularly sophisticated – which is why I don’t buy the long-held suspicion that it may have been Truman Capote who wrote the novel – but she captures the subtleties of this predicament and how Atticus uses it to teach his children artfully.  The take-home messages: sometimes good people have faulty beliefs, but they’re still (usually) good people.  Do the right thing, even when it’s hard.  And these are all messages that I’m so excited to get to teach my 9th graders through literature, because NO ONE should make it through school without being exposed to them.

I’ve mentioned before that I love books that make you want to crawl inside them and live there, and this is one of those for me.  The characters are well-developed, Scout’s commentary is hilarious, and at the end of it all, you’re reminded that there is ugliness in the world (and there always will be) but there will also always be people who will stand up against it.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous book, and after reading it most recently, I had a good long cry for the first time in ages.  So go read it, whether it’s for the first time or the hundredth time.  It’s worth it, I promise.  So worth it, in fact, that I give To Kill a Mockingbird 5 stars. ★★★★★

– Becca

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I’m continuing my vein of writing about books I teach, and my latest novel for my current combination class of 11th and 12th graders is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  If you’re a reader, this book is pretty cool.  If you’re a teacher (of older, mature students) this book is THE.COOLEST.BOOK.TO.TEACH!  Psychology was my major in college, and continues to be a hobby of mine, so bringing in relevant psychology articles and discussing the ethics surrounding psychological treatments then-and-now with a novel set in a mental ward made for a really fun teaching and reading experience.  Also, if you’re a movie buff, the film version of this book, starring Jack Nicholson absolutely swept at the Oscars in 1975 and is unquestionably worth watching.

The book is narrated by a patient with schizophrenia, who for the first part of the novel is perceived by those around him to be deaf and mute – making him the perfect fly on the wall narrator, since the other characters will reveal more around him.  Having a schizophrenic narrator is also a really cool choice on the part of of the author – throughout the book the reader is “in the fog” with Chief Bromden, and you must constantly decide what is real, what is illness, and what is a side-effect of treatment for that illness.  Life on the ward is strictly controlled by domineering Nurse Ratched, until Randle P. McMurphy rolls into town.  A criminal with psychopathic tendencies, he refuses to abide by the ward rules and in so doing, shows the other patients to stand up for themselves and get more comfortable with not fitting the mold society places on them.  The book can be heartbreakingly brutal and is a very clear commentary on society and how we treat those people who are just a little bit different (or a lot different) than we are.  Kesey has very clear commentary speaking out against conforming to what the established authority expects, which is indicative of his activities in the 60s, when the book was written.  The plot itself is so-so, but the beauty of narration by an unreliable narrator (who slowly becomes more reliable, the longer McMurphy is on the ward) is worth reading.  Also, if possible, read this book with a book club or other discussion group because there is so much to talk about!  A few of my favorite points of discussion to consider:

  • the role of women in the novel – not that flattering!  Was this also a statement by Kesey?  Is it bad enough to shun the book all together?  Is it a coincidence?  The choice to make the “cruel establishment” character female was definitely an interesting one… and I’m still trying to decide what Kesey’s motivation behind it was.
  • the ethics of psychological treatment – yes, they’re better today.  But discussing the element of choice in receiving a certain procedure is really interesting as well as discussion of effectiveness and if the trade off for certain side effects is worth it.
  • the time period of the novel – free love, acid trips, war protests, etc.  The 60’s were rife with anti-establishment music, art, and literature.  The historical influences on this novel are really cool to explore and discuss.  And hello, the treatment of Native Americans by our government?  Fascinating, though heartbreaking stuff.  Though this is a minor plot thread in the novel, it’s still worth exploring.
  • And I’m sure there are many, many more.  If you do discuss this novel with a book club or other group, please, let me know what big questions you grappled with!

Overall, I recommend this book – with or without a group to discuss it with.  It’s a great look inside mental health facilities of the ’60s, and from a purely artistic standpoint, the writing is really interesting.  My students and I learned that Kesey often wrote while on acid, and I can definitely see some points in the novel where this may be the case.  I give this book 4 stars, but leave with a warning.  There is some brutalization in the novel where no one is the bad guy – everyone is a victim and the world we live in made certain characters do cruel things to those weaker than they are.  It’s worth reading, but you need a strong stomach.  ★★★★

– Becca