Lights, Camera, Action… Read!

Lights, Camera, Action! Read To Kill a Mockingbird!

By Hope College English major, Katharyn Jones

He set the stage.

One week ago I joined the standing room only crowd gathered in Winants Auditorium to hear Hope College’s own, Dr. Fred Johnson, introduce Holland’s Big Read: To Kill a Mockingbird. I must admit I went to the keynote lecture entitled “Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair” out of principle. My thoughts and anticipation were drawn to the impending visit of Harper Lee’s friend and fellow resident of Monroeville, Alabama, later that week (more on my conversations with this dear woman to come!) I was prepared to be bored. (The guy is a history professor, after all!)

I was far from bored.  Dr. Johnson’s talk was like a spotlight piercing my confusion.

Dr. Johnson brought the story the story to life by recounting the historical tensions of the Jim Crow Era. If I were a child growing up in segregated south like Scout, there were laws stating I could not play cards with another child if they were black. The accusation of rape by a white woman of a black man was a death sentence. Lynching was a social event and recreational outing published in newspapers, so that families could watch. Maybe even bring a picnic lunch. Pose and take a picture with the body. (If you want to know more, check out the website Without Sanctuary. It is a catalogue of photographs taken of lynchings.)  Racial tensions were only exasperated by the economic tensions of the Great Depression. Although To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, the book takes place in 1935.This is the scene in which Harper Lee chose to set her masterpiece and cry for innocence. Publishing her fictional status of the status quo was quite a courageous step on Lee’s part. It certainly steps on some toes.

“Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair” was also a call to action.

The former marine’s talk, (once a marine, always a marine), pointed out something that seemed to apply directly to the message of the Holland Big Read. One of the elements of American slavery was to keep slaves from becoming educated, and, more importantly, to learn to read.  The blood spilt in the Civil War temporarily brought a semblance of educational equality, until segregation threatened to tear reading, education and everything they represent away from half of the South’s population again.  As Scout said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Atticus Finch battled for the breath of his neighbors. He fought for their right to really live. The value reading and the freedom it represents is what we celebrate by coming together as one community and reading one book for the Holland Big Read! We are celebrating a book that sparked change and  voiced difficult questions of equality, independence, and understanding what it means to stand in another’s shoes.

So, as you crack open To Kill a Mockingbird this month, remember to set the stage. And remember that Harper Lee’s message means so much more when you consider the historical tensions fueling the events of the book. And join a book discussion! And remember that former-marines-turned-history-professors are actually very engaging speakers!

Looking for Harper Lee

A Summary of Mark Childress’s article, “Looking for Harper Lee”

Mark Childress, an award-winning novelist from the South, always loved To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, he grew up in Monroeville, Alabama and knew friends of Harper Lee. In an article published several years ago, Childress described how her book affected him as a young reader: “The book moved me as no book had ever done. It made me want to learn how to make that kind of magic, to tell that kind of truth.” Harper Lee was one of the reasons he aspired to be a writer of fiction as a young boy. He thought of authors as “invisible wizards who swept me off to far places to work their spell on me. To Kill a Mockingbird was fiction, but it was real. It came from this place where I sat.” He aspired to create this magic on a page by writing from his own life experiences as well. Since Harper Lee had such an impact on his dream, he tried many times to track her down to meet in person. He attempted to contact her and have the chance to see her, but she continued to turn him down and did not want to be interviewed.

After all of his searching and persistence, Childress finally received a letter in the mail from Harper Lee herself. She was kind and encouraging, expressing how great she thought it was that he was pursuing writing. It was then that Childress decided to end his quests to meet Harper Lee in person. He realized that it was her choice to stay private and she already had given him and all of her readers the best gift of all… “a novel to change minds and arouse consciences.” And what a precious gift that is.

Southern Living Magazine
Vol: 32  No: 5 Date: 1997

Dr. Kathryn Schoon-Tanis: Moments of Grace and Courage

Moments of Grace and Courage:

Reflecting on Dr. Fred Johnson’s “Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair”

Dr. Kathryn Schoon-Tanis

It’s easy as a white, educated woman of privilege to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by race relations in our country. Between the beating of Rodney King and the LA race riots (when I was a Hope College student), to the killing of Trayvon Martin, to the killing (and subsequent riots) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems that we haven’t come all that far since the Jim Crow era of the early to mid 20th century in that it seems that we have a different justice system – different rules – when it comes to the lives of young Black men.

Yet, as Dr. Fred Johnson took his audience on a historical journey in order to set the context for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, he reminded us that there have moments of grace and courage along the way, whether a moment of peace and grace in the midst of a storm that Grace Lorch offered Elizabeth Eckford as she took the first steps of integration, or a moment of courage as James Zwerg, a Freedom Rider, faced violence and brutality. And, as Dr. Johnson highlighted, there was a moment of courage as Harper Lee wrote her book about racial injustice in a small, Southern town – a book that has stood the test of time, encouraging and challenging readers of all ages for over five decades.

To understand Lee’s courage, one must understand the circumstances – legal and social – that created a climate for slavery; for Civil War; for intentional, institutionally sanctioned segregation. In order to do this, Dr. Johnson walked his audience from the colonial slave codes, to the laws passed to protect slavery and the brutalization of Black Americans, to the material destruction of the Civil War, to the Reconstruction Amendments that worked to reinstate the status quo of slavery, to questions, like that of Frederick Douglass, that remain current today: “Do you mean to make good the promises of your Constitution?” And, while Dr. Johnson acknowledged that yes, we as a country have come far, there is still much to be done. We are not in a post-racial society in that we still have to make our Constitution a reality that applies to every American citizen. We are in need of an acceptance of our past, and we need to take responsibility for our present. We need to realize, as Harper Lee states, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  Because, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, “My humanity is in need of your humanity.”

Read With Me

 By Hope College English Education major, Laura Van Oss

            Last spring, Professor VanDuinen warned me that she’d be calling on me along with my fellow English Education students to participate in the Big Read come November. The more involved I’ve become with the project, the more excited I’ve become about the opportunity our city has been presented.

The Big Read dares to propose that reading be a communal act. This is how we learned to read. From the very beginning, perhaps at home with Mom or Dad, at school in reading groups and class discussions, reading is something we do together. But many of us, even if we continue to read once we leave the classroom, leave the conversation behind: reading becomes a solitary pursuit. Any reading, I’m about to argue, is incredibly valuable, but I think we miss something when we read alone.

If you think about it, why are we still reading novels anyway, when we have so many faster, shinier forms of entertainment and engagement at our fingertips? In a world that lives online, reading hasn’t gone away.

I believe its because a story on paper is an active and dynamic thing. It is malleable according to the knowledge, perspectives and experiences each reader brings to the words.

Reading is input: witty, tragic, or profound ideas that enter our brains and hopefully stick around for a while. But it’s in conversation that those ideas thrive. They’re considered and argued; they jump from individual to individual and maybe become something entirely new.

So I think we should all jump at this opportunity to read together. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird stay with us because they are universal. But they touch and provoke us all in unique ways.

We now have the chance to share those responses with one another. Old and young, teachers and students, librarians and engineers. We have a common ground in this story and the timeless questions it asks of us.

What a great conversation starter.

Femininity in To Kill a Mockingbird

by Hope College English Education major, Abby LaBarge

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee portrays evident themes of racism, familial love, justice, and compassion.  One of the lesser discussed themes, however, is femininity.  In the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is determined to embrace her tomboy side for a great deal of time as she grows up, fearing any type of femininity.  She seems defiant and set against maturing into a beautiful young woman.  In her mind, boys get to have all of the fun, and girls are destined to wear dresses and do housework forever.  This could be because Scout spends a large portion of her childhood playing and going on adventures with two boys, Jem and Dill.  Together, the kids act out silly scenarios, roll down hills in tires, and make up crazy stories.  Scout seems to believe the fun will end if she lets go of her tomboy side.  Luckily, Scout is able to find some strong female role models, like Calpurnia and Miss Maudie.  She is able to observe them fight for justice, family, and even their own health and safety.  Throughout the novel, it is impressive to see Scout become more comfortable with herself and to understand the femininity and strength can coexist in an individual.


A Modern-Day Atticus Finch

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who fights for justice and mercy on behalf of those who are discriminated against. NPR recently featured Stevenson in an interview and Calvin College will be hosting him this winter for their January Series. The founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose book Just Mercy went on sale this past month, is quite a hero to those he represents in court.

Sound familiar?

It is incredibly encouraging to hear of real-life versions of Atticus Finch. Much like Harper Lee’s beloved character, Stevenson advocates for those who do not have a prominent voice and defends those who face injustice in the courtroom and in the rest of society. He truly lives out the lessons found in To Kill a Mockingbird.

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We Need Art!

“We need art, in the arrangements of cities as well as in the other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us. We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity.”  -Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Art connects people in a neighborhood or region. The city of Holland already experiences the positive effects of featuring art through the annual Tulip Time festival. The Big Read Holland Area is another wonderful example of celebrating a community through art. Many of the To Kill a Mockingbird events will incorporate an artistic or visual element. We think that responding through art and creativity is important because it gives people a chance to express what they are learning from reading this classic piece of literature in a unique way and to respond in a personal way.

Already, many groups and individuals have submitted their own unique mockingbird drawing that will be a part of a collage that features hundreds of mockingbird artwork submissions from To Kill a Mockingbird readers all over the Holland Area! Local artist Joel Schoon-Tanis will be creating this exciting representation of community togetherness.

We need YOUR art, too! Every mockingbird counts in this community-wide creation. Download a template from our Art Response tab or pick one up at Van Wylen Library on Hope College’s campus or Herrick District Library. Be sure to attend the grand unveiling of the collage at the Big Read Art Reception held at the Holland Museum on November 21 at 7pm.

Maria Emerson: A Personal Take on To Kill a Mockingbird

By Maria Emerson, Technical Services Assistant at Western Theological Seminary

I don’t remember exactly when I fell in love with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the same way that there are times in your life when you meet someone who impacts you profoundly, there are times when a book does the same. TKAM was that book for me. What first caught my attention was the unforgettable and unique character of Scout Finch. Through my eyes, Scout was like me. I was a tomboy when I was younger — dresses were my enemy, I had short hair, I tagged after my older brother (sometimes to his annoyance), I read a lot, and I found it easier to be friends with boys than girls. There were differences of course. Scout was far more talkative than I was, and resolved things with her fists more than I did, but there were enough similarities to keep me intrigued from the beginning. Although I still love the character of Scout, the book has evolved for me as I have grown older.

Years after reading TKAM for the first time, I still find myself rereading it once a year. My copy of the book is worn and dog-earred, and clearly the most read book on my bookshelf. I have one small tattoo on my foot (to the surprise and horror of my parents), which is an outline of a mockingbird. Perhaps it is the tattoo that best explains my love for this timeless classic. I decided on a mockingbird because I wanted to be reminded of Lee’s novel every time I saw it. Why? Books have lessons in them, and TKAM has lessons that can always be drawn upon at any time in a person’s life.

One of the most prominent lessons in the story is trying to understand other people’s perspectives and actions by looking at life through their viewpoint. It ties into the theme of good prevailing over evil as the main characters look for and appreciate the good qualities of a person, while trying to understand their bad ones. One way this is illustrated is through Boo Radley, who is described as an intelligent, polite child, but  suffers at the hands of an abusive father. Because of events before Scout and her brother Jem’s time, and fueled by gossip around town, the children believe Boo to be harmful and scary. Of course, he turns out to be just the opposite.

One of my favorite’s scenes in the book happens at the very end, when Scout is falling asleep on Atticus’ lap while he reads a book about a ghost wrongfully accused of something. Scout mumbles “When they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .” Her father responds with “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” Boo is a perfect example of what happens when you try to really see and understand someone–you see the good that is always there.

I could go on for a long time about TKAM and its many themes, vibrant characters, and life lessons. Whenever people discover my love for this story and ask why, I find it hard to explain in a sentence or two exactly what it is. Although set in a specific location and time, its morals and lessons are everlasting. TKAM will always be my favorite book, and will always be a source of comfort for me.

My husband and I are currently expecting our first child this February; a little girl. Her name will be Scout. I hope my daughter grows up with the lessons of this novel embedded in how she approaches the world.

5 Reasons Why YOU Should Participate in the Big Read This Year

You’ve probably heard of this exciting program going on next month all over Holland! So why should you get involved?

1. Free copies of To Kill a Mockingbird will be given away at our kick-off event (November 3 at 7pm at Graves Hall on Hope’s campus) and at Herrick District Library on November 1. First come, first served!d2d5b740bac340465504dfb6c86f50eb

2. This is the first ever Big Read in Holland; you’ll be a part of history!

3. Whether you’re re-reading it for the fifth time or if this is your first encounter with Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird will leave you thinking about some important life lessons like family, justice, community, and friendship.

4. People from all over the neighborhood will be attending Big Read events. You might see some familiar faces or meet someone new!

5. You’ll have the opportunity to hear from an excellent line-up of speakers including Dr. Fred Johnson, Mary Marshall Tucker, and Dr. Wayne Flynt! Not to mention see the incredible artwork of Joel Schoon-Tanis!

So visit our Events page, mark your calendars, invite your friends and family, and get ready to READ!

Compassion and Forgiveness in To Kill a Mockingbird

In the midst of bitter friendship troubles, Atticus took Scout in his arms and told her this simple truth that we all can benefit from: “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” (9.27)

Harper Lee was definitely on to something with this powerful idea of compassion and forgiveness for others. This small quote reminded me of a cartoon I once saw that has stuck with me. It pictures an elderly couple who has probably been married for many years. They look very angry at each other and probably are in the middle of an argument; they are sitting outside on a bench but are faced away from each other. The man, though he looks frustrated and upset, is holding an umbrella over the woman to protect her from the rain. This image makes a claim that we still care for the ones we love even when we are going through a disagreement. I think we all can relate to this situation somehow. Perhaps we have fought with a friend or family member, but we would never wish them harm. I believe you can remain someone’s friend and treat them with respect even though you’re going through a rough time in the relationship. What matters is that you forgive each other and try to be understanding and compassionate.