Librarians Prepare for Students’ Response to "Go Set a Watchman"

School librarians from Alabama to New York City are assessing the role they can play in fostering discussions around Harper Lee's controversial text.
Cover Curiosity: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a MockingbirdStudents at Bard High School Early College Queens, in New York City, aren’t likely to read Go Set a Watchman in class. Most have already read the author Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, in middle school. But Bard librarian Jess deCourcy Hinds still expects questions from students about how the new release offers a dramatically different look at the classic character Atticus Finch—immortalized on the screen as a civil rights–era hero by actor Gregory Peck but now portrayed as a racist who opposes desegregation and has attended Ku Klux Klan meetings. “Kids think of [Mockingbird] as one of their favorite middle school books,” Hinds says. “And I’m wondering if people are going to feel a sense of betrayal.” But she sees school libraries as a place for students to explore new questions on topics like race and history, both through conversations with their peers and through further reading and research, and looks forward to having “lively discussions around” the book with students. Lee’s Mockingbird is a staple of American English classes: a classic work of literature that addresses issues of race, law, and fairness during the dark Jim Crow era through the eyes of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. But the release of Go Set a Watchman, a novel about an adult Scout returning home to Maycomb County, AL, has some teachers reexamining how they’ll teach the classic work and librarians assessing the role they can play in fostering discussions around the controversial text. The new book is troubling to many readers. In addition to the new side of Finch presented, there are also lingering questions surrounding the book’s release, with many asking whether the aging Lee was taken advantage of by having an otherwise abandoned manuscript published for profit. “I’m anticipating getting a lot of donated copies in the library,” says Wendy Stephens, librarian at the 900-student Cullman High School in central Alabama, Lee’s home state. According to Stephens, donations tend to spike when there’s a popular new release that plenty of people buy but don’t feel strongly about keeping on their bookshelves once they’re finished. But at the same time, Stephens suggests that Alabama residents are especially “protective” of Lee. “Most people here don’t want to see anything negative come from her work," she says. Stephens doesn’t expect Watchman to have the same appeal as the beloved Mockingbird but still predicts that students particularly keen on Lee will check it out, the same way they do biographies on the author or books by peers like Truman Capote or Dorothy Parker. Beyond being just a local classic, To Kill a Mockingbird is also a touchstone—in Alabama and across the United States—to address issues of race. That makes Watchman’s bombshell revelations about Atticus Finch particularly troubling. “It does resonate so much with people from Alabama, the racial constructs and the sense of awareness and many people coming into awareness of that through this book," Stephens says. Maura Nugent teaches English at Hancock High School on the southwest side of Chicago, and this summer she read the book with a group of friends, all of them English teachers. “When the reviews came out, some of us said, ‘I don’t even know if I really want to read it,’” Nugent says, largely because of  the dramatic character shift of Atticus Finch. Nugent is curious how Watchman will change the way people understand and teach Mockingbird, which is traditionally found in the curriculum alongside issues of racism, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. She says that this new book could perhaps prompt teachers to consider other options that teach those issues through the lens of writers of color, rather than from a white author and narrator. “I think for a lot of white readers To Kill a Mockingbird has been a beloved book because the character of Atticus Finch is a way for white people to feel that white people can be good in the face of racism,” Nugent says. “And when that becomes more complicated [through Go Set a Watchman], perhaps people are really just rejecting that because they had a personal attachment to Atticus as a way to relieve ourselves of the guilt of living in a racist society." Books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man do a better job showing the effects of systemic, Jim Crow–era racism because they focus on characters of color and are written by black authors, rather than through a white lens, Nugent says. Katherine Grandfield, an English teacher at Career High School in New Haven, CT, says Go Set a Watchman is so dramatically different from To Kill a Mockingbird that it did little to alter her understanding of Mockingbird or its characters. “It definitely doesn't change the classic for me,” says Grandfield, who often teaches the book in tandem with history teachers, who cover complementary material in their own classes. “It seems so different in tone and voice that it won't change the way I see the characters in Mockingbird.” Hinds says that conversations around race are particularly important for her students, who are high performers from diverse backgrounds. She says it’s likely some will return from summer break having read the book. “The library has a feeling of being a personalized space for spontaneous discussion,” Hinds says, “so students who read the book over the summer can definitely come back and have a place to talk about it.”
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Troy Mikell

Mackin and hosted a very enlightening webinar yesterday where the editor and publisher of Go Set A Watchman spoke and answered over a dozen questions related to Harper Lee's novels. It was a perspective many will never get from one who is so close to Ms. Lee. You can see it here:

Posted : Aug 21, 2015 12:16



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