Eighth-grader Daisy Vetter dropped to the floor and curled up in a ball when news of Harper Lee’s death came over the intercom at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood on Friday morning.
Her friends asked what was wrong. They just didn’t understand, Daisy said, why “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that made Lee famous, is so important to her.
Narrated by a sympathetic tomboy just a bit younger than Daisy, the book has helped generations grapple with questions of race and justice.
“It’s such a grabbing book,” said Daisy, 13. “It literally keeps me up at night. I don’t sleep.”
Few books have shaped the country’s literary landscape more than Lee’s tale of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in the small fictional Southern town Lee fashioned after Monroeville, Ala., where she lived and died.
When she needed help during her first year as a teacher, Leah Bass-Baylis turned to the book’s themes of acceptance and determination. She had been assigned a class of fourth- and fifth-grade students with disabilities who had gone through a rotating array of teachers and substitutes.
Bass-Baylis said she leaned on excerpts from the book and movie, combining it with “The Diary of a Young Girl,” the account of Anne Frank, who died in the Holocaust, and “Biko,” the Donald Wood biography about the black South African activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977.
“I used the books and the movies to talk about man’s inhumanity to man,” said Bass-Baylis, now the principal at Santana Elementary in North Hills.
“While you feel you’re having it tough, a lot of people have it tougher,” she said. “Then there’s that next step of ... how can we be kind to each other?”
The novel became a staple in classrooms across the country, as people of all ages found resonance in its timeless characters, including Scout, the precocious narrator who gives us her account of the wrongly accused Tom Robinson and his defense by her trial attorney father, Atticus Finch.
At Reed Middle School on Friday, teachers said that decades after its release, the lessons — not judging someone before walking in their shoes and that fairness is elusive — remained poignant.
Students seemed to get that.
“It’s interesting seeing the point of view from a little girl with all the racism and how she handles it,” said Eleana Toscano, 13. “Her dad is defending a black person in court even though he knows he won’t win and the kids at Scout’s school are making fun of her, but she knows better than to listen to them.”
“To Kill A Mockingbird” is not required reading in district schools. Teachers are given discretion to choose the books they believe best work in their classrooms. As Lee’s novel ages, some have opted for newer books that deal with similar topics, said Dharma Hernandez, secondary literacy coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Still, Hernandez said, the issues explored in the novel continue to endure as groups such as Black Lives Matter, formed in response to high-profile police killings of black men, have helped bring national attention to racial inequalities.
“It still addresses themes and issues that we are grappling with today in our society,” Hernandez said. “Harper Lee gave us a great gift in ‘Mockingbird,’ and I think it’s a gift that will continue to live on. It encourages our students and society to explore these issues.”
Some scholars have suggested that Lee’s book too easily neglects the level of racial violence African Americans were forced to endure.
In an essay published last year, Stephen Goodwin, a novelist and professor at George Mason University in Virginia argued that “To Kill a Mockingbird” created too rosy a picture of the South during those violent times.
“Even though the plot turns on the death of an innocent black man, the tone is jarringly cheerful,” Goodwin said. “Take out the trial and death of Tom Robinson, and the book is like ‘The Little Rascals,’ all about the pranks and high jinks of a bunch of lovable kids.”
For Shalonda Ward, a student at Washington Preparatory High School, the novel is outdated. The setting is too old-fashioned and the vocabulary too difficult, she said.
“It was really boring,” Shalonda said. “I’d much rather read ‘The Hunger Games.’”
Eighth-grader Jacob Ramer, on the other hand, said the lessons of the novel challenge him to consider how much progress has been made in achieving equality for all.
“It’s amazing considering how much has changed and how little has changed at the same time,” Jacob said. “People are saying, ‘Look how far we’ve come’ ... but there are still so many instances of racism happening.”
But Scott Braxton, who oversees alternative schools for L.A. Unified, said the novel pushed him to do better for his students.
Braxton, who is black, saw the movie when he was 7. He recalls how moved he was by the storyline of a white attorney who defies his white Southern neighbors to stand up for justice.
“I would say I was emotionally struck,” Braxton said. “While I learned about the kind of lives the generation before me lived, it restored my sense that we were going in the right direction as a nation.”
Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.