Scout, the narrator, remembers the summer that her brother Jem broke his arm, and she looks back over the years to recall the incidents that led to that climactic event. Scout provides a brief introduction to the town of Maycomb, Alabama and its inhabitants, including her widowed father Atticus Finch, attorney and state legislator; Calpurnia, their “Negro” cook and housekeeper; and various neighbors.
The story starts with the first summer that Scout and Jem meet Dill, a little boy from Meridian, Mississippi who spends the summers with his aunt, the Finch’s next-door neighbor Miss Rachel Haverford.
From the children’s point of view, their most compelling neighbor is Boo Radley, a recluse whom none of them has ever seen. Dill’s fascination, in particular, leads to all sorts of games and plans to try and get Boo to come outside. Their attempts culminate in a dare to Jem, which he grudgingly takes. Jem runs into the Radley’s yard and touches the outside of the house.
Dill goes back to Mississippi for the school year, and Scout turns her attention to starting first grade–something she’s been waiting for all her life. However, Scout’s first day at school is not at all the glorious experience she’d been expecting from the winters she spent “looking over at the schoolyard, spying on multitudes of children through a two-power telescope . . . learning their games, . . . secretly sharing their misfortunes and minor victories.”
Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, is new to teaching, new to Maycomb, and mortified that Scout already knows how to read and write. When Miss Caroline offers to lend Walter Cunningham lunch money, Scout is punished for taking it upon herself to explain Miss Caroline’s faux pas to her. (Walter refuses to take the money because his family is too poor to pay it back.)
Scout catches Walter on the playground, and starts to pummel him in retaliation for her embarrassment, but Jem stops her and then further surprises her by inviting Walter to have lunch with them. Scout is then punished by Calpurnia for criticizing Walter’s table manners. Back at school, Miss Caroline has a confrontation with Burris Ewell about his “cooties” and the fact that he only attends school on the first day of the year.
That evening, Scout tells Atticus about her day, hoping that she won’t have to go back to school–after all, Burris Ewell doesn’t. Atticus explains why the Ewells get special consideration and then tells Scout, “‘You never really understand a person . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'” These words stick with Scout, and she will try with varying degrees of success to follow Atticus’ advice throughout the course of the story.
The school year passes slowly for Scout. Her grade is released a half hour earlier than Jem’s, so Scout has to pass Boo Radley’s house by herself every afternoon. One day, Scout notices something shiny in a tree at the edge of the Radley yard. When she goes back to investigate, she finds a stick of gum. Jem admonishes her for taking the gum, but Scout continues to check the knothole daily. On the last day of school, she and Jem find some coins in the tree, which they decide to keep until the next school year starts.
Dill arrives two days later to spend the summer. After an argument with Scout, Jem suggests they play a new game called “Boo Radley,” which Scout recognizes as Jem’s attempt to prove his bravery. Against Scout’s better judgement, they enact Boo’s life with great gusto until Atticus learns of the game. The children play the game less frequently after that, and Jem and Dill begin excluding Scout, spending more and more time together in the treehouse. Lonely, Scout begins spending more of her time with Miss Maudie.
When Scout insists that the boys include her in their plans, they tell her that they’re going to deliver a note to Boo Radley asking him to come outside. She and Dill are posted as guards, while Jem tries to deliver the note, but Atticus intervenes, telling the children to leave the Radleys alone.
On Dill’s last night in Maycomb, he and Jem decide to “peep in the window with the loose shutter to see if they could get a look at Boo Radley.” Scout discourages them from going to the Radley house, but reluctantly decides to join them. Someone inside the Radley house comes out and fires a shotgun. The children scurry out of the yard, but Jem gets caught on the fence and is forced to remove his pants to get to safety.
As the neighborhood gathers to discuss the gunfire, Dill concocts an unlikely explanation for Jem’s lack of pants. Atticus tells Jem to get his pants from Dill and come home. At home, Jem confides in Scout that he’s going back to the Radley’s to get his pants. Scout literally fears for his life, but Jem would rather risk life and limb than admit to Atticus that he lied.
School starts again. This year, Jem and Scout walk home together, and they again begin finding things in the Radley’s tree. After receiving several increasingly valuable treasures, Jem and Scout decide to write a thank-you note to whoever is leaving the gifts. When they try to deliver the note, however, they find to their dismay that the knothole has been filled with cement.
For the first time in decades, Maycomb gets snow. School is closed, so Jem and Scout spend their day trying to build a snowman. That night, Miss Maudie’s house burns to the ground. Jem and Scout are sent to wait in front of the Radley’s while the fire is still raging. Boo Radley walks up and puts a blanket around a shivering Scout’s shoulders, but both she and Jem are too engrossed in the fire to notice. The next day, Scout is surprised to find Miss Maudie in good spirits, working in her yard and talking about expanding her garden.
Near Christmastime, a classmate taunts Scout with the news that Atticus is defending a black man. Atticus asks Scout to promise to “‘hold your head high, and keep those fists down. . . . Try fighting with your head for a change,'”–a promise Scout tries to uphold, with limited success. Uncle Jack Finch comes for Christmas as he does every year; Scout and her family spend Christmas at Finch’s Landing with Aunt Alexandra and her family. Alexandra’s grandson, Francis, begins teasing Scout about Atticus defending a black man. She attacks Francis and is punished by Uncle Jack, who had warned her not to fight or curse.