Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A children’s book for grown-ups

When I heard that Harper Lee had written another novel, I decided that I could not put off reading her first one any longer. Everyone I spoke to was amazed that I had not read it. Everyone has read To Kill a Mocking Bird! How could anyone who grew up in the 1960’s, when it was published, not have read it? One of my friends was so appalled by this gap in my reading that she gave me a copy.

I read it and enjoyed it. I felt as if I knew the characters, I was drawn into their world, I identified with Scout, who tells the story, I was moved once or twice to tears. When I finished it, I felt as if I hadn’t just read it, I had lived it.

Why? What is it about To Kill a Mocking Bird that has this effect, not just on me (finally) but on everyone else? It was years since I had lost myself in a book like this. Not since the 60’s in fact, when I was still reading children’s books. Which is, of course, the answer to my question. Harper Lee wrote a children’s book for grown-ups.

I need to state at the outset that this is not a value judgement. A good children’s book is as good as a good book of any kind and often better. It is simply an observation on aspects of narrative structure, moral framework, characterisation and voice. In each of these respects, To Kill a Mockingbird is closer to Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island and The Railway Children than it is, say, to The Grapes of Wrath or Lord of the Flies.

In one important respect, however, it is quite unlike any book written for children: it was written for adults. The children, the precocious tom-boy Scout in particular as the novel’s narrator, are a prism through which Harper Lee lets her readers see the world in its component parts. Scout, with her limited experience of the world, sees things in ways which are often partly right and partly wrong. The reader, like Atticus Finch, sees the bigger picture. But seeing through her eyes, we see things which we might otherwise, through familiarity, have missed. Scout is just a literary device.

Structure, framework, characterisation and voice, however, are all recognisably those to be found in children’s books – the best children’s books, that is, whose authors know how to keep their readers engaged, and not just the children but the adults who read with them too.

There is a mystery which the children try to solve, the mystery of Boo Radley. Nearly every good children’s book has a mystery to solve, but this is not a feature of most books for adults. Harper Lee keeps it going right to the end, when the bogeyman turns into a hero, which is another familiar feature of children’s literature, the kind of thing that happens in books, not in real life.

The adults in the novel are incidental to the children’s lives, sometimes resented and often misunderstood. The plot development is largely to do with the discoveries the children make about the adults and their growing understanding of them and the world they inhabit. Encounters with adults, whether immediate family and neighbours or strangers, such as the mob who come to the jail or the people they meet when Calpurnia takes them to her church, are learning experiences. Again, this is classic children’s literature territory.

The book’s moral framework is defined largely by Atticus, through his words and actions, but also by the behaviour of the other characters. Calpurnia good, Bob Ewell bad. There are shades of good and bad in between and ambiguities which Scout has to puzzle out for herself, but the broad framework is clear and there are no troublesome loose ends. Atticus does not hesitate to use the expression ‘white trash’ when he considers it appropriate. Harper Lee concludes with a bedtime scene in which Scout talks sleepily to Atticus about how things aren’t always what they seem (“…an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice…”) and Atticus talks reassuringly to her (“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them”) and when he tucks her up and turns out the light she falls asleep with the comforting thought that he will be there all night and there when she wakes up in the morning.

Because she writes in the first person as a child, Harper Lee leaves her readers to make up their own minds about the other characters. All we know is what Scout tells us, but we know that Scout is only a child and, making allowances for that, we can draw our own conclusions. Scout, as she finds out for herself, doesn’t always get it right. But the fact remains that the other characters are seen from the outside and have no inner life other than what we can infer from the account we have of them. We don’t know much more about Atticus really than we do about the character of the father in The Railway Children, whom we see for the first time through our tears when Phyllis runs towards him on the railway platform, calling, “Daddy! My daddy!”

Harper Lee peoples her book with characters who have their counterparts in the classic fiction she read, as we all did, when she was growing up, heroes and villains and people who, in real life, would be called ‘characters’. She gives us in this way a lively and convincing picture of a small town in the South where Civil War allegiances and racial divisions are still part of everyday life. She invents a plot to illustrate the moral dilemmas facing an honest man in such a town. She creates a character to tell the story with whom the reader can identify, a curious, intelligent, confident, articulate girl who idolises her father and would rather be a boy.

This is the author’s voice, Scout’s voice for the purposes of the narrative, Harper Lee’s for her own purposes. Choosing not to tell the story in the third person, she identifies herself with the central character, as Dickens does, to choose an obvious and classic example, in David Copperfield. For Harper Lee writes most definitely for adults, not for children. Her lasting success comes from the way she used this voice to write a children’s book for grown-ups.

Harper Lee

Harper Lee

My next post, on 10 June, will be ‘Eugene O’Neill’s debt to George Bernard Shaw’.

One comment on “A children’s book for grown-ups

  1. Levi
    May 31, 2015

    Great overview! I think you touched on some important areas. The discussion about “adult book vs. young adult book” always seems to come up. And books like this existed before that classification got as hardened as it is today.

    If you’re interested, check out my TKAM review here:

    Take care!


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This entry was posted on May 27, 2015 by in Literature and tagged , , .
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