Arts & Culture

The Mystery Books That Inspired ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

Two Seckatary Hawkins books that guided Harper Lee toward her seminal work

photo: Nikki Russell


The best writers are often great readers. Take Harper Lee. In the 1930s, Lee’s older brother gave her two books, The Gray Ghost and Stoner’s Boy by Robert F. Schulkers. Part of a series called Seckatary Hawkins, the books later inspired themes in the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. This fall, the University Press of Kentucky re-released the very books that moved Lee eighty years ago. Complete with illustrations and sporting new cover art, the hardbacks are beautiful reissues of a classic children’s series, with introductions from Schulker’s grandson Randy Schulkers, and his great-niece Diane Schneider.

Seckatary Hawkins is a young adult mystery series that predated Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Beginning in 1918, Schulkers wrote weekly story installments featuring a rag-tag crew of Kentucky pals for the Cincinnati Enquirer. The tales, inspired by his own youth exploring the riverbanks and caves of the Bluegrass region, soon spread to newspapers all over the country and evolved into radio broadcasts and eleven children’s books published between 1921 and 1932. Themes of courage and friendship inspired kids across the nation, including Harper Lee.

A “fair and square” inscription references a popular Hawkins phrase. Harper Lee signed this in a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

A “fair and square” inscription references a popular Hawkins phrase. Harper Lee signed this in a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Hawkins makes two appearances in To Kill a Mockingbird: When Jem Finch wins a bet and receives a copy of The Gray Ghost, and in the novel’s closing pages, when Atticus Finch reads it to Scout. She sleepily muses on how Gray Ghost’s “villain” is simply misunderstood. Scout’s understanding of the work connects to Mockingbird’s central story of acceptance:

“An’ they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…”

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Consider these reissues as a gift for the young-adult reader or aspiring writer in your life. Or, if you’re curious about how the books stirred Harper Lee, order The Gray Ghost or Stoner’s Boy for yourself and savor them over the holidays, when you have a little extra reading time.


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