'Mockingbird' still relevant, beloved after 50 years

Whistler Reads invites author of Harper Lee biography for its next event on Oct. 5

One of the famous quotes in Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, goes like this: "Real courage (is) when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."

It's been 50 years since the beloved novel was published, but those words and many other themes and values from the book are still relevant today. That's why the Whistler Reads Village-wide book club has chosen To Kill a Mockingbird, and a biography about its author, Harper Lee, as the focus of its next event on Tuesday (Oct. 5) at the Whistler Public Library.

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Author Kerry Madden was reminded of the novel's messages about courage when she set out to write Up Close: Harper Lee, a biography published last year. The famous writer, Lee, is also famously silent when it comes to interview requests -she's said to believe that biographies are for people who have died. She hasn't granted a single interview since 1964 and she even turned Oprah down.

But Madden persevered, writing to Lee until she was refused an interview in a short letter. When it became clear that Madden would have to gather information from other sources, she travelled to Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala.

"I didn't want to sit in L.A. and look her up on the Internet," Madden said.

She met many people and heard many stories - both related to Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and unrelated. Going to Monroeville was a chance to immerse herself in Lee's world, and to experience the town that shares many similar qualities with the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., in To Kill a Mockingbird.

People in Whistler will have the chance to hear some of Madden's stories and amazing experiences from her research when she participates in the Whistler Reads event by Skype video.

Madden said she'll share stories of some of the people she met because of the Harper Lee biography, and she'll read from the book.

She said she continued with the project, despite Lee's non-participation, because Lee's story is one of a girl who grew up in a little town where it seemed nobody would even dream of becoming a writer. It took courage for Lee to follow her heart, Madden said, and the biography is a chance to show readers that such things are possible.

When To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960, Lee's editor told her it would sell 2,000 copies. Not only did Lee win the Pulitzer Prize and experience almost instant success, the novel is still regarded as a must-read and one of the most popular novels of the 20th century.

Madden writes in the foreword of Up Close: Harper Lee that five or six fan letters still arrive every week at the Monroeville post office for Lee.

Madden said she thinks the book continues to be so highly regarded because of its "sense of place in childhood" and the world it creates that readers "can step into."

"It's a book written with so much love," Madden said.

Plus, the messages about prejudice and injustice are still "as relevant today," she said.

"Those are themes that don't go away."

Paula Shackleton, founder and director of Whistler Reads, said the To Kill a Mockingbird event is something of a "back to school déjà vu" for adults, as the book is a favourite on school reading lists. She encouraged people to rent the 1962 Oscar-winning movie based on the book, read or re-read the original novel and also pick up Madden's biography on Harper Lee.

The Whistler Reads evening on To Kill a Mockingbird takes place on Tuesday (Oct. 5) at 7:30 p.m. at the library. Everyone is welcome. Visit bookbuffet.com for more info.

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