Harper Lee was my David Bowie: How 'Mockingbird' changed one writer's life

Bestselling young-adult writer Margaret Stohl's "Beautiful Creatures," co-written with Kami Garcia, is about supernatural teens who read "To Kill a Mockingbird." Here she writes about the significance of Harper Lee's book.

I first read Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a teen in school, like you did. I read the book alone, eating lunch at my locker, neatly scored oranges my mother divided into five lines with a circle at the top, so my fingers could dig more easily into the orange skin. To this day, the smell of oranges reminds me of "Mockingbird."

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As Scout Finch discovered that she had to find her own way within the town of Maycomb, Ala. — that the world was not fair, that justice was racially coded, that innocents could be found guilty of nothing but the color of their skin, that children could be the targets of adult violence — I saw the world laid bare, and with it my world. While I could accept that the frightening Boo Radley could be a hero, or that crabby old ladies could be suffering addicts, I could not accept that the heroic Atticus Finch might not be able to save Tom.

I was not used to unhappy endings, except for one: Jesus on a cross. I closed "Mockingbird" and thought that can't be how it ends. But beyond the injustice of Tom's death, what I really felt was jealousy. How badly I wanted an Atticus Finch of my own. Because, as I read, an idea had been fighting its way up from my own darkest, most secret places. An idea, a recognition — I knew that town: My family was Maycomb.

I was raised in a community of Christian orthodoxy that had traveled with my parents to Los Angeles when they moved there for my father's job. People who might get married at 18, who believed men governed the family and that women were put on Earth to be mothers, just like my five aunts and their seven and eight children — each.

In Sunday school I had been taught that the reason some people had dark skin was because they were the descendants of Cain. We were fed prejudice, just like Maycomb, in 1970s West Los Angeles.

There was no Atticus Finch in my world, but now there was a Harper Lee. It felt like she knew me, and what it was like to live in my Maycomb. She was a flawed white girl discovering the racial, socioeconomic, generational and gendered complexities of the world she was born into, and choosing for herself how she would connect to it.

This is what Harper Lee gives the young people who read "Mockingbird" — that sense of choice, of agency.

And I learned something more: Reading Harper Lee, I understood that you could write a book like that, even when you lived in a town like that. You could build your own version of that town, one line at a time. You could feel at home, really at home, and reconcile things that could never be reconciled, even if only in a book.

And in that realization, "Mockingbird" changed my life, and I began to plot my own course through the world, even if still only in secret. I became a writer.

Later, after I was married and with three daughters, my eldest read "Mockingbird"' in school and said she thought it was boring and irrelevant; I was crushed. It was the most important book of my life, and it mattered more than anything else she would ever read, in school or out. Then I sat down with my friend (and my daughter's former teacher) Kami Garcia and set out to prove it.

We wrote our debut young-adult novel, "Beautiful Creatures," about a group of teens also reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" in a small town in South Carolina, where being different was a crime. The book was published by Little, Brown in 2009 and has now been released in 50 countries, spawned a series and adapted into a film.

But 50 years after publication, it's really Harper Lee's book that adapts itself, reader by reader. Scout's story becomes an empowering message to all outsiders. Voices are raised, now: #blacklivesmatter, #yesallwomen, #lovewins.

After a recent panel about "Mockingbird" in Barnes & Noble at the Grove, where I spoke about how scary it was not to have Atticus Finch in your family, it was a gay Latino boy who came up to hug me and tell me how he related to me and to Scout. His family felt like Maycomb too. He felt powerless. I told him to write it down.

Everyone reads Harper Lee personally. For me, "Mockingbird" was about admitting my own hyphenated identity — about loving and hating my world, about both belonging and not belonging to the community I came from. It was about this orange I am eating now, my token of love from my mother, even though I can't help but dig deeper to see what lies beneath the skin.

In "Mockingbird," Harper Lee wrote a young-adult anthem, something everyone can sing along to, like "Changes."

Harper Lee was my David Bowie, and I feel her loss in my bones.

Stohl is the bestselling author of nine young adult novels and a co-founder of YALLWEST and YALLFEST book festivals.

MORE ON HARPER LEE:

A deeper look at the mystery of Harper Lee

46 times 'To Kill a Mockingbird' echoed through pop culture

No third novel from Harper Lee, expert says after examining manuscript

Rereading 'To Kill a Mockingbird': It lingers, but not in the way he expected

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 20, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Harper Lee's life lessons - A bestselling young-adult author writes about the significance of `To Kill a Mockingbird.' - AN APPRECIATION" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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