Historical Fiction: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

If you are a middle school or high school teacher, you have probably taught To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) dozens of times, and probably you are thinking this is a gratuitous post – more of the same. And perhaps you are right.  However, Harper Lee’s story provides a platform for experiencing literature, rich in authenticity and the complexity of genuine life experiences, that it would be a shame not to promote To Kill a Mockingbird one more time.

At A Glance: Things to Know

  • Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  • Lexile 890, ATOS 5.7 (recommended ATOS 6.5 due to background knowledge needs, as well as content requiring more mature social awareness)
  • 324 pages
  • Background knowledge recommended in American History: the pre-Civil Rights Movement American South, Jim Crow Laws, Racial Segregation, Great Depression Era
  • Cross-discipline English Language Arts and American History
  • Historical Fiction, narrative
  • Deep textual layers, emotionally intense storyline, excellent character development
  • Excellent choice for classrooms with a broad range of reading abilities
  • Excellent title to supplement American History of Pre-Civil Rights Movement American South
  • Excellent title to discuss social impacts of abject poverty
  • Excellent title to explore concepts of sympathy, empathy, and mercy


Original publication cover design of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Price winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) Retrieved from http://fontsinuse.com/uses/9792/go-set-a-watchman-by-harper-lee

Original publication cover design of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Price winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)   Lexile 890 ATOS 5.7  Retrieved from http://fontsinuse.com/uses/9792/go-set-a-watchman-by-harper-lee

Written as a narrative of the now-grown main character Jean Louise Finch (Scout), To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of the pivotal circumstances, events, people, and experiences that inspired her fundamental and deep understanding of the human condition.  Guided by her sober-minded and even-tempered father, Atticus Finch, Scout navigates a period of nearly three years of her childhood, filled with scrapes and trials, that ultimately lead to understanding the complexities of human experience, but not without tears, bruises, and unmitigated injustices.  Along with her older brother Jem, and beloved albeit transient best friend Dill, Scout explores her world which seems to be dominated by the rules of adults and the peculiarities of adult logic that is sometimes difficult for a child to comprehend.  Set during the Depression (1933 – 1935) in a small town in Alabama, the story approaches topics like abject poverty, racism, and bigotry from the perspective of a child’s observant and (somewhat) innocent eye.  Through authentic discovery, Scout pieces together a pure understanding of her father’s early advice to approach others with sympathy and empathy; to walk around in another’s skin for a bit, as Atticus put it, to gain an appreciation for his point of view.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-


Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Movie poster for the 1963 movie depiction of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Note the warning "Not Suitable for Children" in the lower right side of the poster. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056592/

Movie poster for the 1963 movie depiction of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Note the warning “Not Suitable for Children” in the lower right side of the poster. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056592/

I don’t remember when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I was teenager.  I loved it.  It defined me as a reader, and maybe even more importantly, it planted a seed in my mind to become a writer.  I have since read To Kill a Mockingbird at least a half a dozen times, and I have watched the 1962 movie (starring Gregory Peck) more times than I can count.  Of course, the movie and the book are not the same: the movie is an interpretation of the book that, one might argue, was befitting the time and the audience rather than staying true to the story itself.  Reading Harper Lee’s novel and watching Robert Mulligan’s depiction of her story are two different experiences.  And, as I can now approach the two from the perspective of teacher and librarian, I would be able to easily identify those students who watched the movie in lieu of reading the novel.

The movie focuses heavily on the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping and assaulting a young white woman suffering from the effects of abject poverty and ignorance.  While this is of major account in the novel, it is not by any means the focal point of Harper Lee’s story.  In fact, contrary to what many suggest, To Kill a Mockingbird is not about racism, discrimination, or the forced segregation of the pre-Civil Rights Movement in the American South.  It is about the shared experience of perceived difference, which in the end bonds us through our empathetic sensibilities.  While each of us has been shaped in unique ways – thus our differences as individuals – those experiences and circumstances that shape us are not unique to us alone; the human experience is shared, and we each have the capacity for sympathy and (hopefully) empathy for others in their struggles or fortunes.  And Harper Lee proves this through the eyes and heart of Scout, and the wisdom of Atticus Finch.

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

There is no shortage of ideas on how to incorporate this novel into the curriculum of a middle school or high school class.  With a Lexile 890 and 324 pages, this book can be covered easily over a two week period.  Because of the relatively low Lexile, classrooms with a broad range of reading abilities would have success with this novel.  However, the ATOS rating of 5.7 is lower than I would recommend due to the background knowledge required (pre-Civil Rights Movement in the American South, Racial Segregation, Jim Crow Laws, etc.), as well as some content that requires more mature social awareness than is typical of a 5th or 6th grader.  I would recommend an ATOS rating of at least 6.5.  Those with above average abilities will be challenged by the depth of character and story development, as well as the complexity of its aboutness.  Struggling readers might be challenged by the length, but the captivating story will likely make the challenge a fruitful one.  I would like to see To Kill a Mockingbird taught from the perspective of identifying and teaching empathy (using scenes like Jem’s & Scout’s relationship with Mrs. Henry Lafayette Debose, or with Walter Cunningham, or the experience going to church with Calpurnia, or even the pathetic character of Mayella Ewell).  Perhaps discussing the relationship of empathy to mercy (the mad dog comes to mind, or perhaps even the curious circumstances of the death of Tom Robinson, or the delicate nature with which Atticus treats Mayella Ewell while on the stand).  While I am not discounting the value of the great historical lesson that can be gleaned from Harper Lee’s depiction of the segregated American South, I feel very strongly To Kill a Mockingbird is far more complex and rich in textual layers, that to be singular in instructional topic would be like “killing a mockingbird.”

Here’s a short video on the difference between sympathy and empathy that might get students primed for recognizing it in literature:


Checkout these lesson plans for ideas on how to incorporate To Kill a Mockingbird in your classroom:










Curriculum Standards

AASL: 2.1.1 Use critical thinking skills applied to new information to draw conclusion and develop new knowledge.  2.1.6  Use the writing process and 21st media technology to create products and express new understanding. 2.3.1 Connect understanding to the real world.

CCSS:  CC6-8RH/SS6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal author’s POV.  CC9-10RH/SS9 Compare and contrast treatment of the same topic across multiple sources.  CC.9-10.R.L.1Key ideas and details, Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of explicit meaning and inferred meaning


American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/CrosswalkEnglishStandardAll1-4.pdf

American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner reading standards in history all AASL standards common core crosswalk. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/ReadinginHistoryAllStandards.pdf

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Reading is a window to the world. (2007). . Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_Learning_Standards_2007.pdf

The RSA (2013, December 10). Brené brown on empathy Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&feature=youtu.be


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