Harper Lee's contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about "To Kill a Mockingbird": "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book."
Fifty years later, we can concede both that Harper Lee's novel inspired a generation of adolescents and that Flannery O'Connor was right.
Monday, July 12, 2010
I was thinking about this just now because of a discussion thread on the Goodreads College Students! group. To Kill a Mockingbird is turning 50 this year, and this milestone birthday is causing a lot of discussion in the book-loving world. Many still praise it, but there are some people who don't like it much. Like this one guy, Allen Barra, who kind of pooped on it. His main argument, as I understood it, is that it doesn't have value as a great American novel because it was aimed at young adults.
I'm sorry, but that royally ticks me off.
Who is Allen Barra to say young adult literature can't have worth as a member of the literary canon? Does a book have to be for adults in order to have merit? Most, if not all, of my favorite books were written for young adults and I think a lot of them are more poignant than many adult novels. They might be comparatively simple in language, but that doesn't mean they're not complex. Perhaps it is that simplicity that's necessary to get to the hearts of younger readers. How many kids in your class liked Great Expectations when you read it? Or any other classic that was assigned?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these books are inferior or shouldn't be taught. What I'm saying is that when you assign books to younger readers, when you want to teach them something, it tends to be easier when they can understand what's happening in the book. Not everyone will turn out to be an English major. Not everyone is interested in symbolism and metaphor and all that lit jazz. (I am, but I actually was and English major and am going to be a librarian.)
Barra ends his article with this:
Again, what's wrong with children's books? And what is wrong with inspiring adolescents? Isn't that what librarians, teachers, and many others spend their lives trying to accomplish? I know it's what I'm aiming for.