The Mukilteo School Board voted unanimously Monday night to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the required reading list for ninth graders, while still allowing for teachers to choose to teach the classic novel to students.
The board acted after months of discussion among teachers, parents and students, and in reaction to concerns over racism in the classic novel, first published in 1960.
John Gahagan, a board member since 2011, stressed that members were not banning the book, just removing it from the list of required reading. He said a 20-member instructional committee of teachers, parents and community members had voted by a nearly two-thirds margin to no longer have the book be required reading.
The book, over the 60-plus years since its publication, has remained overwhelmingly popular, while also, at times, controversial.
The New York Times recently cited it as its readers’ pick for the best book of the last 125 years. PBS viewers gave it a similar honor in 2018.
“I grew up in a small, insular, white Protestant town in the West, and this book first exposed me to the cruelty of racism,” a New York Times reader wrote for the feature. “I do believe it changed my life and made me a person who cares about social justice.”
But it also has had a near perennial spot on the American Library Association’s annual list of the most challenged books.
“Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a ‘white savior’ character, and its perception of the Black experience,” the library association wrote, describing frequent rationales for challenging the book.
Gahagan said he reread the novel, about a white lawyer’s efforts to defend a Black man wrongly accused of rape, last week for the first time in 50 years.
“It’s a very difficult book and lot of thorny subjects are raised and we felt that some teachers may not feel comfortable guiding their students through it,” Gahagan said. “It deals not only with racism, but it reflects a time when racism was tolerated.
“Atticus Finch, of course is in everyone’s memory the great hero of the book, but in fact he was kind of tolerant of the racism around him. He described one of the members of the lynch mob as a good man.”
Students and community members also cited the book’s use of the n-word as a reason for removing it from the required list.
“And it never has a discussion of why that word is bad why it is hurtful or why it should not be used,” Gahagan said. “You don’t really get the perspective of the pain that might cause people of color.”
School Board President Michael Simmons called the decision “emotionally charged.” He said that ultimately, board members did what they thought was best for students. He said his two daughters both read the book when they went through Mukilteo schools and the issues being discussed now never came up.
“At the end of the day, the recommendation from the instructional materials committee was such that each of us voted to affirm that recommendation,” Simmons said.