The Mukilteo School Board voted unanimously Monday night to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the must-read lists for ninth graders, while still giving teachers the option to teach the classic novel to their students.
After months of discussions among teachers, parents and students, and in response to concerns about racism in the classic novel, which was first published in 1960, the committee took action.
John Gahagan, a board member since 2011, stressed that members did not ban the book, just removed it from the must-read list. He said the 20-member teaching committee made up of teachers, parents and community members voted by nearly two-thirds to no longer require the book to be read.
In the more than 60 years since its publication, the book has been wildly popular, but sometimes controversial.
The New York Times recently named it the best books of the past 125 years, according to readers. PBS viewers gave similar honors in 2018.
“Growing up in an isolated white Protestant town in the West, this book first exposed me to the brutality of racism,” a New York Times reader wrote for the feature. “I believe it changed my life and made me a person who cares about social justice.”
But it also appears almost year-round on the American Library Association’s annual list of the most challenging books.
“Prohibited and challenged for racial slurs and its negative impact on students, with a ‘white savior’ character, and perceptions of the black experience,” the library association wrote, describing common reasons for questioning the book.
Gahagen said he reread the novel last week, about a white lawyer’s efforts to defend a black man wrongly accused of rape, for the first time in 50 years.
“It’s a very difficult book that presents a lot of tough topics, and we think some teachers may not feel comfortable guiding students through the book,” Gahagen said. “It’s not just about racism, it reflects a time when racism was tolerated.
“Atticus Finch is of course a great hero in everyone’s memory, but in fact he was a bit tolerant of the racism around him. He described a member of the lynch mob as a nice guy.”
Students and community members also cited the book’s n-word as a reason to remove it from the desired list.
“And it never discusses why the term is bad, why it’s harmful, or why it shouldn’t be used,” Gahagen said. “You don’t really understand the pain that can lead to people of color.”
School Board Chairman Michael Simmons called the decision “emotional.” Ultimately, board members did what they thought was best for the students, he said. He said both of his daughters had read the book when they were at Mukilteo school and the issue under discussion never came up.
“At the end of the day, the recommendation from the Textbook Committee was that each of us voted to confirm that recommendation,” Simmons said.