‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.’ To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Ask any writer, reader or lover of books and I bet they will be able to reel off a list of authors and books that have shaped their lives.
I am no exception. My parents tell me that from a very young age, I devoured books. Quite literally at first as I was only a toddler and my first instinct was to pick up a book – usually upside down – and stick it in my mouth.
As I got older and realised exactly what books were for, my love affair intensified. At school I worked my way through the wonders of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. When my reading ability grew I moved away from these and started finding myself getting into trouble for reading the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz (apparently, these books were too old for me and I shouldn’t have been reading them but that’s another blog post for another time). They are all authors who I still love. You’ll always find me first in line when at the book shop when there’s a new Stephen King book released.
But when I started my first year of GCSE English, I was presented with a book which – I say wholly without exaggeration – changed my life. It was the story of two young children living in America’s South in the 1930’s and their perspective on the case of a black man being tried for the rape of a white girl; the black man’s lawyer is their father.
I don’t need to tell you of course, that the book was To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Like me, most people’s first exposure to the book was during English at secondary school. I know that because of this, because of being forced to read it at school, a lot of people have bad memories of the book. But for me there are only good memories.
At it’s most basic, To Kill A Mockingbird is quite simply a wonderful story of the experiences growing up and being confronted with adult situations at a young age. For me however, there was something more. The way Lee wrote of all the characters- from the boisterous, ever curious, Scout Finch to her stoic, Everyman, hero, Atticus Finch- made them all feel completely alive and real to me. The way she uses descriptions of the hot stuffy weather in Alabama to emphasise the growing tensions in the town made me believe that I was actually reading something more than just a fiction, that this could have been a real place.Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention how Lee perfectly bolts on a ghost story to the proceedings with the sub-plot of the mysterious local town legend, Boo Radley.
Into all of this she deftly interweaves life lessons that are relevant to all children growing up around the world today, not just in the 30’s. This is beautifully illustrated in the quote at the top of this post, about how we should preserve things of beauty, not spoil them in any way.
It was all of this and so much more, from Lee’s poetic prose to the the way book shifts effortlessly from a being a heart-warming coming of age tale, to shocking thriller to uncompromising look of the state of a nation divided and back again, that lead me to the decision that more than anything else in the world I wanted to be a writer.
Now, I know that the stuff I write, Sci-fi and Fantasy could not be further removed from Lee’s work but it was all things I have mentioned above that made me want to give it a go. I strive to write as well as Lee did and I constantly find myself going back to my now very dog-eared copy when I am in desperate need of inspiration. Something that happens quite often.
The other thing that I am grateful to Harper Lee for is that because To Kill A Mockingbird was so different to what I usually read that I went out seeking other works in a similar vein. I found I wanted to learn more about that time period and so started researching which led me to a love of history and, in a round about way, blues music.
As I write this, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for a number of reasons. One is that I still have Go Set A Watchman on my ‘to be read’ pile (I’m going to rectify this over the coming weekend).
Another reason is that even though I love this book so much and believe it is such an important book, I don’t feel I have ever championed To Kill A Mockingbird enough. I should be shouting about it from the rooftops, handing out copies to complete strangers in the street.
If you’ve never read it, I implore to go and get a copy and spend some serious time with it. If you read it at school and hated it because you had to write essays about it (something I loved doing BTW, but then again I’m a huge nerd), I beg you to revisit it. Read it without burden and through fresh eyes. It may change your life.
I shall be going back to it tonight and raising a glass in memory of Harper Lee, in thanks for the effect she’s had on my life. I hope you enjoy it to.
REST IN PEACE, Harper Lee (1926 -2016).
Thanks for reading,