Book Pairing Pick: To Kill a Mockingbird and Feathers

TKAM_Feathers

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.

Woodson, Jacqueline. Feathers. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007. Print.

Plot:  To Kill a Mockingbird: Eight year old tomboy Scout and her older brother Jem spend long unsupervised days happily playing  in the fields and creeks of small town Alabama in the 1930’s. Their favorite pastime and source of unending curiosity is the local house-bound recluse who they’ve named “Boo.” Convinced Boo is a monster, they dare each other to lure him out of the house, or to at least catch a glimpse of him. What they discover is that the real monster is not Boo, but rather the ugly racial and social prejudice that keeps their small town in a tight lock hold.  When their father, a lawyer, defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, Scout and Jem learn the painful truth of  injustice.

Feathers: When a pale, long-haired boy from the other side of the highway shows up at Frannie’s all-black school, he is quickly dubbed “Jesus Boy.” The name sticks because he does look like Jesus, and because he likes the moniker. Frannie is too busy worrying about her mom’s multiple miscarriages and her deaf brother to think too deeply about the new class enigma. Adamant that he is not white, Jesus Boy becomes the focus of everyone else’s insecurities: the preacher’s daughter believes that he may be the real Jesus, while the class bully, who looks part white himself, uses Jesus Boy as his psychological punching bag. Through her classmate’s various reactions, Frannie comes to understand that appearances can be deceiving, that we believe what we want to believe, and that communication can bridge divides. Most importantly, she learns that hope- light as a feather- is everywhere, floating on the wind.

Topics: To Kill a Mockingbird: Race Relations, Civil Rights, Prejudice, African Americans, Law & Crime; Gender Relations; Southern States; 1930’s

Feathers: Race Relations; Prejudice; African Americans; Faith; Friendship; Family Relations; Disabilities – Deaf Children; 1970’s

Review: Both of these books are timeless, thought-provoking, character-driven novels; one classic, the other contemporary. Both provide a strong sense of time and place- the deep South of the 1930’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and somewhere north of there in the 1970’s in Feathers– a pairing that underscores the persistence of racial and social prejudice. While Harper Lee’s classic provides an intimate and dramatic sense of the heartbreaking realization that life’s not fair, it might be said that Feathers delivers hope that the injustice of our tacit social norms could be unveiled for what it is by naming it; by saying it, and thereby “seeing” it.

But it’s not that Feathers continues where To Kill a Mockingbird left off, or that Feathers is simply more hopeful, it’s that Feathers provides an easy way in. The notion that people believe what they want to believe is a crucial aspect to both novels, but is much more explicitly, and far more gently, revealed in Feathers.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, readers must confront the gritty details of rape and other violence, attend to unconventional language demands and sometimes-confusing flashbacks, all while being able to discern Lee’s nuanced social critiques among the details of a far-away place long ago. Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exceptional work with characters that readers are unlikely to ever forget, but, in comparison, Feathers makes fewer demands, while successfully getting to the heart of the big topics: race, prejudice, faith and hope. Reading both, students will sense the repeating motifs of perspective: looking but not seeing; the injustice of tacit social norms: saying but not hearing; and the hope of moral conviction.

Quantitative Reading Level:  To Kill a Mockingbird: Lexile: 870L, ATOS Book Level: 5.6, Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level: 8.1, AR Interest Level: Upper Grades (9-12)

Feathers: Lexile: 760L, ATOS Book Level: 4.4, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 4.3 , AR Interest Level: Middle Grade; AR Reading Level: 4.4

Qualitative Reading Analysis: To Kill a Mockingbird: While the book’s major themes are explicit, the story compelling, and the language conversational, the subject of rape, Lee’s social critiques, and the historical setting of the novel indicate a high level of complexity.

The themes of race-relations and prejudice are straightforward: an innocent black man is assumed guilty- “a dead man” from the moment the crime was committed; Arthur “Boo” Radley is considered a monster until he is truly “seen”. The meaning of the book’s title is made explicit early on and references to it are fairly easy to identify, connecting it directly to the story’s overall superstructure of good vs. evil. Readers will be drawn to the vivid cast of characters and likely to never forget them. Readers will recognize the novel as a coming-of-age tale wherein Scout and her brother Jem, lose their innocence as they encounter evil in its various forms.

And yet, the cliché of not judging a book by its cover is developed in a myriad of touching and subtle ways beyond the basic plot of Tom Robinson’s trial and the character of Boo Radley. The exploration of prejudice is not limited to the lens of race. There is much here on class and social inequality that reveal yet more layers of the artificial, morally corrupt, and tacit rules that make up the landscape of ‘adult life’.

The book begins as a retelling of a childhood event by a grown-up woman. As such, readers come to expect Scout as the voice of reason, providing an adult filtering and sense-making process, but sometimes- unexpectedly- the narrator-protagonist, Scout Finch, reverts to her younger self- a less experienced self, complicating the sense of trust in the narrator to usher one through the text. In other words, these are not straightforward ‘flashbacks’, but rather, demand close attention by the reader. The structure of the book is otherwise straightforward.

While conversational, the dialog is not standard English and seeks to provide a strong sense of place and time.  As such, many words and phrases will be either difficult to recognize, such as “…folks say he pizened ‘em…” (p. 30),  or  potentially unknown, such as “Jee crawling hova, Jem!” (p. 148).

The knowledge demands of unpacking the overlapping and interrelated topics of justice, social norms, and civil rights are high. Maturity is required to recognize the power of invisible social structures, and then some smarts to apply that line of thinking to a different time period. Students will need to draw from academic background knowledge in the subjects of history, social science, and English language arts in order to think about and discuss the advanced themes on offer in this seminal text.

Feathers: Rated low for  complexity, Feathers is a slim, efficient, easy read. Never preachy, it hits the hard issues of race, class, faith and hope with a feather-light touch. While the references to 1970’s music and the occasional jive talkin’ dialog, “…right on brother -man, I feel what you’re saying” may be lost on young readers, the memorable characters and the accessible yet elegant literary devices work wonders to bring the message home. Requiring little to no background knowledge, this touching, timeless story is likely to provoke fruitful thought by readers within a wide range of ability.

Content/Subject Area & Standards:

High School English Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.10: By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

Curriculum Suggestions: Use this book pairing in a 9th grade English class to make the heavy topics of race and class relations more accessible. Struggling readers will gain confidence from reading Feathers first, and more adept readers will simply enjoy it as a quick easy read; both types of readers will benefit from using the book as an entry point and as a comparison to the classic.

After reading both books, watch the following video as a primer for a discussion on the treatment of enduring themes: Is To Kill A Mockingbird Still Relevant Today? To discuss: The time period in which To Kill A Mockingbird (1930’s) and Feathers (1970’s) are set spans 40 years. And now, the setting for Feathers is 40 years old- are these books still relevant today? Why does popular fiction keep addressing this topic?  How do the two authors themselves and the time period in which they wrote affect their treatment of the same topic?

Links to Supporting Content:

Primary Source set from The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Includes photographs, documents, and objects that provide context for historical and thematic elements within To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Website

The Big Read’s Readers Guide to To Kill A Mockingbird- About The AuthorA program of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.

Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project works to research “cold cases” of racial violence and injustice from the Jim Crow era, attempting to set the record straight and help communities and families in the search for reconciliation and remediation. The 17-minute video “The Trouble I’ve Seen” describes their work. (Tavares, L. “Text to Text- ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names’” The Learning Network, The New York Times, 2 April, 2015. Web. 6, October, 2015.

Tags: Book Pairing, Book Review, Classics, HS-ELA,INFO237

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