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Books Kate Taylor: Schools should try replacing Mockingbird with a Canadian perspective on race

Everybody has heard of Harper Lee, the 88-year-old author about to publish a very belated sequel to her 1960 schoolroom classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but who knows Gwethalyn Graham? She was the author of Earth and High Heaven, which won the 1944 Governor-General's Award and became the first Canadian novel to top The New York Times bestseller list.

Earth and High Heaven is a Romeo-and-Juliet tale, a love story about a Westmount socialite and her Jewish boyfriend, set in Montreal during the Second World War, the period in which Canada's policy toward Jewish refugees was summed up by the notorious phrase "none is too many."

If you want to teach Canadian high-school students about the personal heroism required to build a tolerant society, the novel, although dated in some ways, may be a better starting point than the equally problematic Mockingbird, a book dealing with race relations in the American South.

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But it is Mockingbird that remains a favourite of Canadian teachers, rather to the annoyance of Marc Côté, the publisher at Cormorant Books, which reissued Earth and High Heaven in 2004. Côté can only dream of Mockingbird numbers: The book still sells an estimated 750,000 copies in North America every year and – to judge from media reaction to Tuesday's news of the "sequel" – it is as well known in Canada as in the United States. No wonder publisher HarperCollins was delighted to announce the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a rediscovered early draft of Harper's only published novel that features an adult version of narrator Scout Finch 20 years after the events of Mockingbird. The New York publisher is reportedly planning an initial print run of two million; nobody at Cormorant is going to sell two million copies of anything.

But this is not simply about sales: The point is not that Mockingbird is a bad book – Côté admires it; instructors find its simply stated themes are a useful teaching tool – but that it gives Canadian students a perspective on race relations shaped by the unique U.S. history from slavery to the Jim Crow laws. Canada's history of racism is very different, but that doesn't stop Canadian teachers from embracing Mockingbird as a text that promotes discussion about discrimination, empathy and personal integrity. The book is still widely used in Grade 10 classrooms.

Contemporary critics complain that the plot, about how Scout's father, the lawyer Atticus, represents a black man accused of raping a white woman, is told from the perspective of the white defenders rather than the black victims, but the issue that has proved controversial in schools is the book's frank reporting of the racial epithets of the day. It was, for example, pulled from separate schools in Brampton, Ont., after a single parent complained about the N word in 2009. Some Brampton teachers at the time said it was their preferred literary text for starting discussions about racism in multicultural classrooms.

Earth and High Heaven may not be a perfect substitution: When reviewing that novel in these pages in 2004, Fiona Foster called it a good read but suggested its message that the Jewish hero should forgo his narrow ethnic identity to make the relationship work is not very palatable. So, both books are products of their eras.

I'd vote for the second title on Côté's suggested list of replacements: Obasan, the 1981 novel by Joyce Kogawa, tells the story of the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War through the eyes of a young girl.

Côté is a long-standing critic of Canadian educators' reliance on U.S. texts and from the Cormorant list also suggests the Japanese-Canadian immigrant story Odori by Darcy Tamayose, and – to raise the topic of Canada's treatment of aboriginal people in English lit class – Celia's Song, Lee Maracle's new novel about healing the legacy of the residential schools. Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes is also sometimes suggested as a reading list replacement for Mockingbird since it specifically deals with the history of the black community in Nova Scotia but, at 500 pages, it's a daunting read for a high-school English class.

Canadian school teachers generally have great discretion as to what literature they introduce into the classroom. Required texts are a thing of the past; in many provincial curriculum documents Shakespeare is the only author mentioned by name. There is certainly nothing holding teachers back from replacing Mockingbird with Canadian titles: most provinces urge their teachers to reflect diverse Canadian and international perspectives in English class, and Alberta even sets a minimum of one-third Canadian content for its senior level high-school English classes.

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Still, there are 48 copies of Mockingbird in the Calgary Public Library, eight of Obasan and one of Earth and High Heaven. Côté has his work cut out for him.

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