Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Tuesday, 15 June 2010 11:59 UK

Why is To Kill A Mockingbird so popular?

Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Fifty years after being published, To Kill A Mockingbird is still devoured by students, while simultaneously loved by their parents. But is it just a sentimental children's book?

It's just ahead of the Bible in the nation's affections.

On the eve of its 50th birthday, To Kill A Mockingbird still has a generation of schoolchildren transfixed, while regularly figuring high on lists of the country's "favourite books".

A poll for World Book Day placed it fifth, behind Pride and Prejudice but ahead of the Bible. A similar BBC one puts it sixth. And a survey of British librarians rated it the book they would most recommend.

Harper Lee in 2007
Born in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926, daughter of a lawyer
Schoolmate of Truman Capote, with whom she remained close
Studied for a law degree, including a year at Oxford University
To Kill A Mockingbird published in 1960, an instant hit
Later said the success was as frightening as the 'quick and painless death' she had expected from reviewers
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the US in 2007

Within its 300 pages, the small fictional town of Maycomb in the Depression-ravaged American South is memorably evoked by Harper Lee. Her debut novel was a huge critical and commercial success, earning the Pulitzer Prize and sales which now number 30 million. She has not published another novel since.

One of the central lessons of Lee's novel, according to the book's moral driving force, lawyer Atticus Finch, is to put yourself in other people's skin and walk around in it. But to apply that mantra to the author herself would be stretching one's empathic skills to breaking point - Harper Lee hardly ever does interviews or speaks about her work.

But much can be learned about her own childhood when reading the novel. Lee tells the story of Finch, the middle-aged lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white girl. The action unfolds through the eyes of his perceptive six-year-old daughter Scout, and explores issues of race, class and the loss of innocence. So what explains its popularity?

David Parchot, teacher at Bishop Thomas Grant School in south London, says his GCSE students respond to the story, the characters and the family relationships.

"They are challenged by the ideas in it and are quite upset by what happens to Tom Robinson. Justice is not done because it's a white woman's word against a black man's and that's particularly pertinent and shocking in a school like mine, where 50% of the intake are black students. They are also a bit shocked by the language, so you have to explain that Lee is depicting the reality of life as it was in Maycomb in the 1930s."

"It's one of those life-changing reads," says Garry Burnett, an English teacher in Grimsby, who organised a Mockingbird festival at his previous school in Hull.

"It's not just exam fodder but something that draws an emotional response, particularly in children. But there are parts of the novel I find too moving to read. As a parent, I identify with the strength of the father, who is prepared to set an example to his children, even though it might cost him."

When he's reading the scene at the end of the trial, Mr Burnett puts the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door of his office, so as not to "break the spell".

In order to enrich their understanding of the work, Mr Burnett shows his pupils a brick he obtained from Harper Lee's childhood house in Monroeville, Alabama, when he took pupils there on a visit.

"They pass it around and I tell them that through this brick would have echoed all the voices of the characters that we're about to read.

Meera Syal
"To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book that made me aware of racism, and aware of what was happening to me. It even helped me to understand why the perpetrators of racism act as they do, and why they too should be pitied."

Comedian Meera Syal, writing in 2007

"I don't like teaching them Salinger or [Steinbeck's] Mice and Men as much. I don't like the cynicism. I like the uplifting tone of Mockingbird."

One line in the book can spark a week of debate among his 15-year-old pupils, he says. The week-long festival he organised in 2005 was attended by actors from the memorable film adaptation that starred Gregory Peck.

The 1962 film cemented the novel's popularity in the hearts of its British fans, says Denis Flannery, a lecturer in American literature at the University of Leeds. But more central to the book's appeal is the simple morality tale that appeals to both children and adults.

"It's very much a novel about an argument for justice, a novel where children struggle to obtain justice. Everyone knows that in reality, any struggle is nigh on impossible to win. Every adult has a memory of being unjustly treated as a child.

"Therefore, it's very powerful to read a narrative where children can obtain justice. But while your childhood self is longing for that, your adult self knows it's not possible."

The narrator Scout has a voice that has both childlike innocence and adult slang, says Mr Flannery, and sometimes in the same sentence:

"Atticus had urged them to accept the state's generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass."

This double voice - is she speaking as a child or as an old woman recollecting her childhood? - draws in readers of all ages, he says, but turns the novel into something of a fantasy, rather than a realistic representation of life in rural 1930s America.

It's often the case that the British unconsciously use the American South as a screen to project their own fears and tensions around issues like race, class and prejudice, so it becomes this invented space where these things are played out
Denis Flannery

The South is an incredibly complex place, but there are British-held stereotypes about its attitude to race and class that this novel could reinforce, and even add to its appeal, says Mr Flannery, who used to live in Tennessee.

Having a knowledge of the region took a lot of the fascination away, says Bonnie Greer, a Chicago-born, African-American writer whose father grew up in Mississippi. But the novel has good qualities, she says.

"It's a beautifully written book, so it's no surprise that it has this immortality. It's very simple and it's a book introduced to girls at a young age, at a vulnerable age when you are grappling with your own puberty and problems, and when books really stick in the mind.

"I read The Diary of Anne Frank at the same time, which is also about a girl coming to understand life in the most evil circumstances, but I found it more riveting."

Bonnie Greer
"It came into my consciousness with the movie when I was a schoolgirl. I knew about the book but coming from a family where my dad grew up in the south, we knew all those stories, so it didn't pique my interest as much as other people."

Writer Bonnie Greer

Mockingbird presents an evil story to the mass market so it's a bit sentimental, she says, and it places white southern gentility and decency at the heart of the story, rather than what happens to the black man.

The voice of Scout is part of a uniquely American tradition of young narrators, that appeals to teenage readers, says Chris Bigsby, literary critic and professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia.

"In the American context, there's a history of adolescent narrators, like Huckleberry Finn, and always a sense of them having their own natural morality because they haven't had time to be corrupted by the world around them.

"The world of Huck Finn accepts slavery but he can't make sense of it. The adolescent sees the world in straight, moral terms."

Although it's a good book for young people to study, says Mr Bigsby, often these books selected as set texts in schools reflect the choice of teachers and examiners, rather than reflect any popularity among youth.

And there's always a danger that when a book becomes as celebrated as this one, then it is read as a box-ticking exercise.

"There is a risk that it becomes just another famous book and we read it because it's a famous book and it's de rigueur to read."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I think it is true to say that if one had grown up in the 'deep south', one would not have found this excellent book as absorbing or as curious or as shocking as if one had grown up in suburban Surrey.
Kenneth Jessett, Houston

Like many of your readers, I was introduced to the book at school when I was 15-16. It was the first and only English set text book that I read at one go, I was so engrossed. We also watched the film, which I found a strange experience... it bore an uncanny resemblance to the mental images I had in my mind from reading the book. I guess this is a tribute to the author's writing and the film's director.
Davina Pike, Bromley, Kent, UK

I suggested to my 12-year-old son that he should read it as a great book instead of a high school chore. He has surprised me by reading it from cover to cover. He told me things that happened in the book while he was reading it. Something that he has never done before. If that's the mark of a good book then To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic.
Gordon, Kirknewton

Although I was a great reader for my own pleasure, nothing that school made me read was of any interest to me until I did To Kill A Mockingbird as a set text for English O level exam (as they were then known). I loved it then and still do today. I've re-read it many times since and doing so is like revisiting old friends. It still remains entertaining, thought provoking and moving. Thank you Harper Lee.
Martin Kelly, London, England

I studied To Kill a Mockingbird for English Lit 'O'level in 1975. I loved it and can still remember loads of the quotes. My partner studied it at the same time, for the same exam and loathed it. However, he can remember even more of the quotes than I can. Love it or hate it, it's a memorable book.
Jan Slater, London

When I grew up in Scotland in I remember being made to read this book at about age 13, just over 10 years ago. The plot is predictable and contrived. I think you can tell I am not a fan, but if it gets kids reading I can only be a good thing. I think that it's to simplistic and irrelevant to kids these days for them to take anything from it.
Anon, London

My very favourite part is at the end of the trial, when Calpurnia tells Scout to stand, as her father is passing by. The quiet dignity of that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Fee Lock, Hastings, East Sussex

Not a massive fan of it myself - read it when I was 20. Though one poignant moment I recall where Scout's teacher tells them she didn't understand why Hitler persecuted the Jews. This for me draws up that - although the South was having a hard time - over here in Europe it was far worse.
Nightshade, Swindon

Even coming from a politically and socially aware family, this book, read at an early age, was an awakening. I was sure that I was going to change the world! Well, at 50 plus, clearly I haven't but I still care passionately about right and justice and hope that, like me, most who read this book in adolescence will feel that they have made some small difference towards an improved society and a better tomorrow.
Mary, Nottingham

Of the books I was compelled to read at secondary school (1968 to 1974) it was the only one I enjoyed. Re-reading every five years or so produces the same pleasure.
Grumpy Dad, Aberdeen

Even though I read the book, it was not as powerful as the film. I watched it as a child and it scared me, I watched it in my teens and it made me aware of the deeper issues and now I believe as an mature adult it is a classic that will never die!
Lynnybe, London

TKAM teaches us about a man who dares. Atticus stands for justice in his workplace and hometown, risking alienation. It is also about a community that has the potential for change...
Andy, Durham

I have read and re-read this book many times over the years (although never at school where it was on an English reading list ... students everywhere nodding their heads). It ranks in my top five ever, as does the movie. There is a deep beauty and resounding melancholy throughout the pages. Each time I read it I have a pain inside, a hope that things will turn out differently, a despair when the jury gives its verdict but the individual strength and goodness of Atticus stands out as a reminder of how one person's attitude can, nonetheless, be different and powerful. I don't believe Pride and Prejudice comes close
Majella Fergus, Harrogate, England

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