STEPHEN SMITH: 'Mockingbird' Never Loses Its Appeal
Thank goodness there's a shallow breath to be drawn between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I've had a moment to think about an appropriate gift for a kid who's about to drift into his early teens.
I've considered all the usual kid presents -- video games, iPods, sweaters, socks, a remote control model airplane. But nothing has struck my fancy.
I was discussing this gifting conundrum with George A., a former neighbor. He has a nephew about the same age as the boy I'm buying for, and he said, "I'm going to give him 'American Rifle.'"
I reviewed "American Rifle" in this month's PineStraw and found it immensely interesting, even though I'm not a gun fancier. The book is full of the kind of minutiae that might interest a mechanically inclined young person. Moreover, it's impossible to read the book without absorbing a healthy dose of American history.
"He loves guns," said George. "So he'll probably like the book. I'm hoping it will get him in the habit of reading."
My thinking had been along the same lines. What book could I give to a young boy who's about to discover the diversions of the angst-filled pubescent la-la land that parents dread?
I'm giving him Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird," (Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 336 pages, $10.85 or cheaper if you can find a used copy), the 1960 classic about life in the South during the Great Depression.
I'm going to include with the book a DVD of the black and white film that stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and a young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley (DVDs of the film are available online or through most bookstores). The book and the film are of equal quality, which is to say that both are masterpieces.
Here's how it should go down. The recipient of my gift will rip off the Christmas paper and find the book. "Ah, darn," he'll say. "It's some crummy old book." He'll toss it aside, and the DVD will fall out. "Oh, look," he'll say. "It a movie. I'll watch it later."
This little scenario is based on my belief that most kids will watch a movie before reading a book. If he starts watching "To Kill a Mockingbird," I'm confident he won't stop till the credits roll.
So why should I even include the book?
After I watched the movie in 1962, I went right out and bought the book and read it from start to finish in three days. I was already a reader, but "To Kill a Mockingbird" made me a lover of literary fiction, and I've been reading novels ever since.
By comparing the movie with the novel, I learned there are elements of fiction that shouldn't be in the film (remember the old woman who's addicted to morphine?).
More importantly, I came to understand how a fictional character can come alive on the movie screen. Gregory Peck made Atticus Finch into a living and breathing human being -- warm, occasionally stern, but always enlightened.
Prose passages from Harper Lee's novel have lived on in my memory ever since that first reading.
Remember when Heck Tate says, "To my way of thinking, taking the one man who's done you and this town a big service and dragging him with his shy ways into the limelight -- to me that's a sin... it's a sin. And I'm not about to have it on my head. I may not be much Mr. Finch, but I'm still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night sir."?
More importantly, there are important lessons to be learned about the Great Depression and the problems of race in the American South during that period in our history. Who knows what worlds my simple gift might open?
I'll let you know how my scheme works out.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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