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The Great American Read, Part 2

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 (2013 M. Rader Photography)

Meg Waite Clayton was just a girl when she read To Kill a Mockingbird, but Scout Finch’s story has never left her. Here’s her Perspective, part of KQED’s collaboration with PBS on ‘The Great American Read’.

The summer I met Scout Finch was the summer after Miss Wilson’s fifth grade, the summer of new braces and, more embarrassingly, a first bra on my eleven-year-old breasts. I’d just moved, too, to the seventh place I called “home.” A shy child now without a single friend.

There was a climbing tree in our new back yard. A garden wall. A van parked up a hillside, housing long-haired hippies. And the town library that was having a contest. To win, I had only to read the most books.

Mornings, I flew downhill on my Schwinn, then made the long slog up to sit in the tree or on the wall or, after the old lady next door invited me, in her garden. I chose short books. I meant to win. By August, though, the librarian was pointing this freckle-faced, ratty-haired girl to books like To Kill a Mockingbird.

Like Scout, I had a brother I adored and admired and fought with. I had a lawyer-father as respected as Atticus. So I imagined myself as Scout, with that hippy bus my Boo Radley house. I imagined I did have a friend—a funny boy whose character is so perfectly delivered in his proud introduction: “‘I’m Charles Baker Harris … I can read.’”


I might have read To Kill a Mockingbird again and again that summer except that … well … for the contest, it counted only once. It’s a book I’ve reread over the years, though—one that helped shape my ideas about race and gender, fairness, and community, and my empathy for those who, like Boo Radley, struggle.

That summer, though, it was a story of a girl I could imagine being, having adventures I wanted to have. Reading it, I imagined that if eight-year-old Scout could tell a story that made a book, maybe eleven-year-old Meg could too.

I’ve read thousands of books since, but none that evokes the emotion I feel with every re-read. Nor one that makes me want more urgently to be a better friend, sister, daughter, parent, citizen.

With a Perspective, I’m Meg Waite Clayton.

Meg Waite Clayton lives in Palo Alto and is the author of six novels and numerous essays. Her Perspective is part of KQED’s collaboration with PBS on ‘The Great American Read.’

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