Why To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Should Win the Great American Read

The Great American Read is an eight-part television series celebrating and discussing America’s top 100 novels as chosen by a survey of approximately 7,200 people.  Americans can vote on their favorite book once a day until the winner is revealed on October 23.  Here at Pages Unbound, we’re joining the fun by reading, reviewing, and discussing some of the nominees!

Disclaimer: My favorite book ever is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and I have already decided to #VOTELOTR for the Great American Read.  (You can read Krysta’s post on why LotR should win here.) However, there a number of other fabulous books that have been nominated, and I want to share some reasons they might also deserve to win (or reasons you might want to read them).

1. To Kill a Mockingbird is an American book.

Technically this competition is about what books Americans love to read, not books by American authors that are great.  However, you can make an argument for voting for an American book, and To Kill a Mockingbird is a strong contender.  The book tackles tough issues of race in America.  It explores small town living in America.  It has been on American reading lists in classroom for years.  When I think of “Great American Books,” To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind.   (I mean, some people argue that  Moby Dick by Herman Melville is the “great American epic,” but few people really enjoy reading Moby Dick.)

2. It Tackles Tough Issues

As I mentioned in the previous point, To Kill a Mockingbird tackles some tough issues, most notably issues around race and justice in the court system for people of color.  Of course, the book was published in 1960, so the story doesn’t have a one-to-one correspondence to race issues today, but its messages about tolerance, justice, and bravery are still relevant today.

3. But it’s about more than race.

Obviously, the main character is Scout, a young girl growing up in a small Alabama town.  The novel is often classified as “coming-of-age” fiction, and it’s also about how Scout deals with learning that the world isn’t fair and that people aren’t always who she thought–for better or for worse.

4. It’s complex but highly readable.

Yet with all the complex topics it takes on, To Kill a Mockingbird is highly readable and engaging. I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I like it each time I reread it.  It tends to be a favorite among books “people were forced against their will to read for school.”  Most people I know who have read it like it.  Basically, it’s a whole package of tough questions, strong prose, engaging plot, and interesting characters.

Briana

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Previous posts on the Great American Read

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A Hint of Hydra by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartowski

Information

GoodreadsA Hint of Hydra
Series: Lailu Loganberry #2
Source: LIbrary
Published: July 10, 2018

Official Summary

Thirteen-year-old chef Lailu Loganberry must stop a war between the elves and scientists in this follow-up to A Dash of Dragon, which Kirkus Reviews calls “a recipe for success.”

It’s the Week of Masks, a festival held to chase away evil spirits. But Lailu doesn’t have time to worry about demons. She has bigger fish to fry—or rather, griffons, now that she’s been asked to prepare a mystical feast for the king’s executioner, Lord Elister.

Unfortunately Lailu’s meal is overshadowed by the scientists’ latest invention: automatons, human-shaped machines that will respond to their masters’ every order. Most people are excited by the possibilities, but the mechanical men leave Lailu with a bad taste in her mouth.

Even worse, the elves still blame the scientists for the attacks on them weeks ago, and Lailu worries that the elves might be cooking up revenge. So when she and her sorta-rival-turned-almost-friend Greg stumble across the body of a scientist, the elves are the prime suspects. With help from Greg, her best friend Hannah, and the sneaky, winking spy Ryon, Lailu has to discover the truth behind the murder, and soon—because hostilities between the elves and the scientists are about to boil over faster than hydra stew.

And just ask any chef: war is bad for business.

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Review

(Krysta reviewed book one in the series for the blog, and you can read her review of A Dash of Dragon here .)

I didn’t review A Dash of Dragon for the blog, but I enjoyed the characters, world building, and even the crazy plot line enough that I jumped at the chance to read the sequel when I saw it at the library. While the motivations and actions of the characters are still a bit unclear in this installment, a criticism Krysta leveled at A Dash of Dragon, I couldn’t help but find that all the craziness really made me think.

Basically, although I read the book because I think it’s entertaining and like the idea of a young chef running a top restaurant while also becoming involved with national intrigue, I kept reading because so much of it seems unique in middle grade, and I started thinking a lot about side points in the book.

First, I find the idea that protagonist cooks mystical creatures like dragon, griffin, hydra, etc. as “exotic food” really interesting.  This is a world where few people eat dragon basically because dragons are hard to kill.  However, none of the magical creatures eaten are the anthropomorphic, wise ones you get in other books.  Indeed, a lot of them are basically pests, and Lailu and her fellow chefs are doing citizens a favor by hunting some down and turning them into tasty dishes.  The book tries to be responsible about discussing hunting and the ethics of killing animals, but I was also just fascinated by the idea of a world where magical creatures are both awe-inspiring (you often need a hero to kill them when they’re menaces) but also kind of boring (people regularly eat them when possible).

Second, I am fascinated by the magic vs. science narrative in the book.  The plot line is somewhat convoluted and would be difficult to explain in a review, particularly without giving spoilers, but the gist is that the scientists (basically a new phenomenon in Lailu’s country) are feuding with the elves.  It would be so easy for the authors to make one of these sides “bad” and have a “science is the way of the future” narrative or a “the world needs magic” narrative.  However, they don’t do this.  In fact, there are so many villains on both sides and so many misuses of both science and magic that you can’t even say the message is that “science and magic both have their place.” Well, the book does point out good on each side, but the whole issue is more complicated than one would think, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what the book is trying to say about science and magic.

Admittedly, I was actually put off by this at first because I couldn’t tell if the science vs. magic think was complicated because the authors are trying to say something nuanced or if it’s complicated because the authors are nuts and threw a bunch of plot points at the page that sound dramatic but don’t really make much sense in the grand scheme of things.  Ultimately, however, the English major in me decided it didn’t matter what the authors intended to do: if the book says something interesting, it says something interesting, even if it’s “accidental” and the authors weren’t aiming for it at all.

This book series isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot of fun with all the drama and spying and intrigue and murder and explosions.  I like the characters, and I like the adventures they go on.  Most of all, however, I like that a book got me thinking about representations of mythical creatures in fantasy and representations of confrontations between science and magic in fictional worlds.

4 stars Briana

The Sunday Exchange (9/16/18): Share a Post About a Childhood Favorite

Sunday Exchange

Introduction

The Sunday Exchange is a new weekly feature we are introducing at Pages Unbound where we ask you, our readers, to share a post from your own blog that matches the week’s theme.  The goal is to allow you to share posts you are proud of or think other people will find interesting and to help other people find fun posts to read.

This Week’s Theme

Share a Post About a Childhood Favorite

The “Rules”

  1. Share your post title, the URL of the post, AND a brief explanation of what the post is/why you think people might like to read it in a comment on this blog post.
  2. Try to make the post fit the week’s theme.
  3. Please share only one post each week.
  4. The post does not have to be recent. It can be from any time in your blog’s archives.
  5. Consider visiting some other bloggers’ posts.
  6. We won’t be closing the comments after a week has passed, so *technically* you can still add your post later, but it may not get that much traffic if you share your post a month later.

That’s it! We hope you participate, and check back next Sunday for a new theme and another chance to share!

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A Post We Recommend at Pages Unbound

Lessons from Anne Shirley

Lessons I’ve Learned from Anne Shirley

Krysta and I both love Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (and, really, all her books), so we post about her a lot. However, I (Briana) think this post Krysta wrote in 2016 about lessons she’s learned from everyone’s favorite redhead helps get at the heart of the book and why it speaks to so many people.

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Information

Goodreads: Shadow Scale
Series: Seraphina #2
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

War has broken out between the dragons and now the humans must choose sides.  The kingdom of Gorredd has chosen to support the dragons who will uphold the human-dragon treaty.  But to win, they need the help of all the half-humans, half-dragons who have previously been hidden, often shunned and punished by their communities.  Seraphina has agreed to track down those of her kind.  But one of them is invading minds and she has the power to destroy everything Goredd has worked for.

Review

Shadow Scale gripped me far more than its predecessor Seraphina.  It moves beyond the palace walls and opens up the narrative to the larger world and the various ways half-dragons have survived.  Higher stakes, a larger cast, and more settings to explore simply make Shadow Scale more interesting.

I tend to be drawn to character-driven stories, so I was engrossed by a narrative in which Seraphina must fight a woman who can enter the minds of others.  The question of whether Seraphina could continue to protect her mind, as well as the question of which other characters could be trusted, added excitement to the tale.  This, coupled with how it never fell into the well-worn tropes of YA fantasy, made Shadow Scale a compelling read.  I wanted to know more because I never felt sure that I did know what would happen.

The characters won my heart, as well.  I loved seeing Seraphina finally open herself up to her friends and I loved seeing how other half-dragons lived both in Goredd and in other nations.  It was truly satisfying both to see some well-respected community members and to see Seraphina realize that she was no longer alone.  She set out to find a family and, even when she did not succeed, she still managed to bring people–and herself–a little bit of light.  I felt she deserved some of that after everything she had been through.

Shadow Scale is an original YA fantasy that is absolutely thrilling.  Everything from its characters to its plot conspires to make it the kind of book difficult to put down.  Fans of YA, of fantasy, and of dragons are advised to pick it up.

4 stars

Where Are the Realistic Male Characters in YA?

The male leads in YA are starting to look strikingly similar to me.  Some may be princes, some “troubled” youths, and some the boy-next-door, but their personality traits are incredibly similar.  Often they are misunderstood or under-appreciated.  Typically they see and value the female lead in ways no one else does.  They pair strength with sensitivity, showing that they are able to cry over a family member but also able to fix a car or fight for their girl’s honor when necessary. All of them appreciate the beauty of the female lead, but in a romantic, respectful, aesthetic sort of way.  You will never catch them looking at a girl’s assets.  In short, they are, every one of them, the “perfect boyfriend.”

These depictions of teenage boys are fascinating because they are so obviously a female fantasy rather than attempts at realism.  The services asked of YA male heroes often seem close to superpowers.  Routinely these teenage boys intuit what a girl is not saying, exhibit endless patience in drawing it out, empathize with her by crafting the perfect response–and then suddenly go hyper-masculine by saving or protecting her with their physical strength or other “manly” skills.  This may be the dream–a man who can read minds, who can be both sensitive and strong–but it is a dream that readers should know is just that, a dream.

Real-life teenage boys are incredibly diverse and not all of them (or none of them?) are going to be the “perfect” boyfriend as depicted in YA books.  They are going to struggle to read minds.  They are going to struggle to come up with the right words.  They may not want to fight anyone.  And, yes, most of them have noticed that girls have chests and butts.  That does not make them dirty.  That makes them human.  And they should be allowed to be so.  They should not have to feel that they will never measure up to the YA fantasy.  They should not have to worry that teenage girls think less of them for being who they are

I would love to see more male authors published in YA and I would love to see them write male protagonists.  Rather than a wealth of female fantasies, I want to see characters like Brandon Sanderson’s lead in Steelheart.  He notices the female body.  He does that because he’s a guy.  As a result, he feels real.  He’s not trying to impress the ladies by being simultaneously all sensitive and hyper-masculine while also pretending he only ever looks at girls’ faces.  He’s just busy being himself.  We need more of that, for the sake of male and female readers alike.

Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Information

Goodreads: Letters to the Lost
Series: Letters to the Lost #1
Source: Library
Published: April 2017

Summary

Juliet is still processing the death of her mother, a photojournalist, by visiting her grave and leaving her letters.  Declan Murphy is serving a community service sentence by mowing the cemetery.  When Declan finds Juliet’s letter, he writes back and soon the two are revealing things they cannot reveal to anything else.  But as they get to know each other, they also begin to worry that the truth about their pasts may be too much for them to handle.

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“One day isn’t your whole life. A day is just a day.

Letters to the Lost breaks all the rules of YA romance.  Switching between the perspectives of Juliet, a girl mourning her dead mother, and Declan, a boy struggling with the things he’s done in his past, the story rejects the ideas that love happens easily and that love conquers all.  Rather, it shows how love is a struggle and how love only transforms when it leads to change.  With its raw look at the real, Letters to the Lost is a beautiful, heartbreaking romance.

YA romances tend to follow a standard outline.  A girl who feels unwanted and unsure finds herself falling in love with a boy who may seem hard on the outside, but who is secretly vulnerable and sympathetic on the inside.  A mistake briefly draws them apart before they announce their love for each other again at the end of the story. It is cliche and predictable, but readers often like a story that feels comfortable because it safe.

Letters to the Lost does not give readers this narrative.  Instead, it offers a story balanced equally between a boy trying to find himself and a girl wondering if she is ready to move on.  Both are hurting and both will eventually find that a sympathetic ear can make all the difference.  But they do not let love define their lives to the point where nothing else matters.  They continue to struggle with family, friends, and school.  Their relationship works, not because they are “saving” each other, as if one could ever do that for someone else, but because they give each other a safe place to speak and they draw strength from that.  They fight for everything, from maintaining their friendships to figuring out who they want to be.

With its depiction of family and friends, Letters to the Lost immediately sets itself apart.  Neither character lives in an ideal world, but they eventually realize that their parents may not be the enemy, that even adults struggle to communicate sometimes.  And both have important friendships in their lives and they talk about more than their new romance. The friendship between Declan and Rev is one of my favorite depictions of male friendship in YA as they are open with each other about their pasts and theirs fears, but they also take time to discuss things like the existence of God.  As a result of scenes like these, one senses that Declan and Juliet are more than a couple in love; they are people with communities, with lives.

Letters to the Lost has a companion book More Than We Can Tell.  However, Brigid Kemmerer’s characters are so beautifully drawn that two books are simply not enough.  I hope we see much more of her work in the future.

4 stars

Dance of Thieves’ Disturbing Lack of Moral Questioning

Spoilers for Mary E. Pearson’s Dance of Thieves follow.  Read at your own risk!

Dance of Thieves tells the story of Kazi and Jase–one a former thief now working as the queen’s soldier and the other part of a family who recognizes no laws but their own.  They begin badly, with Kazi threatening to cut Jase’s throat, but soon move past that moment as being kidnapped by labor hunters forces them to work together.  Their romance is quick and sure–being chained together creates intimacy that otherwise might have needed time to grow.  However, Kazi is searching for a criminal that she believes Jase’s family is harboring.  And her secrets, combined with Jase’s commitment to his family, threaten to tear the two apart at various moments of the story.

Both Kazi and Jase are meant, I assume, to be morally dubious characters.  Kazi may have given up her life of crime on the streets, but she still, as Jase points out, is willing to enter his home under false pretenses and betray his family.  Jase, meanwhile, has to make the hard choices to keep his family’s dynasty running.  He, along with the rest of his kin, accept the necessity–and profitability–of housing blackmarket dealers, physically threatening the opposition, taking half the king’s taxes to care for the city, and chopping off body parts when they need to punish someone or get information.  The title of the book is Dance of Thieves, after all.  We are meant to understand that both the protagonists take things that do not belong to them.

Dance of Thieves, however, never really wants to take a hard look at the choices its characters make.  Kazi explains away the majority of her decisions with the excuse that she made a vow to her queen.  She will lie, cheat, steal, and betray anyone she needs to with full assurance that such a vow puts her in the right–the ends justify the means.  Any of her actions that fall outside the necessity of performing her job are easily explained away by her sense that the other person “deserves” it.  If someone overcharges for goods, she steals from them.  If someone committed cruelties, she commits cruelties against them.  In effect, she becomes disturbingly like the people she claims to judge.  But the story refuses to acknowledge or engage with this.

Jase’s actions are similarly explained away by duty and “justice.”  He can punch as many people as he wants as long as it is in service to the family or in retaliation for violence they committed.  He will even harbor wanted criminals if it will make his family a profit.  The story tries desperately to balance his cruelties with his kindnesses–the times he thinks of Kazi’s happiness, the way he suddenly reverses his feelings on refugees and begins sending them supplies instead of trying to remove them from his land.  His morals are incredibly murky, seemingly motivated largely by his personal feelings (especially for Kazi).  But, again, the book never really engages with Jase’s grey areas.  Instead, at the end, he is rewarded with everything he wants simply because he showed basic humanity one time in helping the refugees.  He is held up as a hero.

That Kazi and Jase are morally ambiguous is not surprising–they are the titular thieves.  However, their lack of moral questioning is incredibly disturbing.  For the bulk of the book, both characters are obsessed with determining the moral culpability of others and judging and then punishing them for it.  But neither one of them really looks at themselves.  When their actions create obstacles or breaks in their relationship, neither Kazi nor Jase ever wonders if it is because they did something wrong.  Instead, both justify their actions to themselves and accept the breaks as inevitable since changing themselves is not an option.  They never repair the breaks in their relationship because personal moral responsibility is not something either wants to admit.  Instead, they repeatedly paper over the breaks by making out.  Lust is what makes their relationship work despite all the lies.

The end of the book is perhaps the clearest indication of how morally bankrupt all the protagonists, not just Kazi and Jase, are.  The queen’s soldiers have successfully captured a handful of former war criminals.   Kazi’s fellow soldier Synové delights in finding ways to mentally torture them as them as they journey towards the queen who will judge them.  The captors as a  group purposely lead their captives through an old battlefield so they can watch the former deserters among them fear for their lives,  as they believe the dead rise from the ground to take deserters back to the underworld.  Finally, Synové  taunts a captive into fleeing, then  covers him in antelope blood so a wild animal will hunt and eat him.  No judgement is given, though it is indicated the queen might “talk” with Synové  about the antelope blood, as if her actions deserve a slight reprimand rather than immediate dismissal from the guard.  But the book suggests all of this is supremely justifiable because the victims are war criminals–and thus not human.  It is a fantastic twisting of the criminals’ own actions, which they no doubt justified with the same reason.  Their victims were not human.  They did not deserve mercy.

Finishing Dance of Thieves was nearly not an option for me because I felt like I was travelling through a moral wasteland.  Reading about protagonists who have morally shady areas but also redeeming ones is one thing.  Reading about protagonists who take on the attributes of deceit and cruelty, the same attributes of the villains they fight, is another.  This could, of course, have been an interesting theme to explore–what actions are justifiable? does violence always corrupt?–but the book does not want to engage with such themes.

Instead, the book focuses on the romance, having the characters passionately kiss and melt into each other every couple scenes, as if the fact that two people are in love puts all morality on hold.  The story also simultaneously suggests that all the lies, the violence and the backstabbing really do not actually warrant any attention because, after all, the villains had it coming.  As a result, Dance of Thieves makes dishonesty and retaliatory violence heroic and sets up its protagonists to be as terrifying as the villains they face.