When Schools Allow Parents to Shelter Their Kids (But Not Mine)

Ask PermissionParents are rarely happy about the education their children receive, or so it seems.

Some complaints are legitimate, particularly in our current climate of education funding cuts. Others, however, are based on nothing more than the parent’s rosy memory about the education he or she received (that faulty assumption that everything was better in the past!) or, in the worst cases, the parent’s bizarre desire to force his or her views on everyone else’s children.

It’s usually the latter type of person who challenges the books included in the curriculum or on the library shelves. I sympathize with the teachers and school administrators who have to deal with those complaints—that is, until they cave in to the pressure. From a public relations perspective, what may seem like a reasonable policy of appeasing parents can backfire if the school’s decision to ban books makes the news.

Remember when the Alamogordo Public School District in New Mexico withdrew Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the 10th grade curriculum? The district restored the book, but not in time to save itself from widespread public scrutiny.

When I wrote about that fiasco, I noted how a distict’s decision to remove a book from the curriculum differs from its decision to remove it from the school library:

A curriculum forces students to read certain material, whether they or their parents want such exposure, while the library merely provides students with access to materials they could choose to borrow. Thus, it makes sense that there would be wider latitude given to districts to remove books from school curricula than to remove books from library shelves.

As a result, courts rarely disturb a school district’s decisions about curricula. See, e.g., Ward v. Polite, 667 F.3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.”).

So, considering how hard it is for parents to challenge the inclusion or exclusion of a supposedly controversial book, how should districts handle parental complaints? Just about every book — even something as seemingly innocuous as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree — is “controversial” to someone.

Well, my preferred response is for the district to consider whether the book furthers a legitimate, age-appropriate educational goal. If so, then ignore the complaint. If the district still wants to appease the parent, though, another option is to provide an exemption that gives parents an opportunity to force their children to “opt out” of reading certain books.

Recently, the Highland Park Independent School District in Texas, another district with self-imposed book banning woes has decided to offer exemptions to parents who disagree with the content in six books: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Well, the exemption option is certainly a less restrictive alternative to removing the book from the curriculum altogether. I hope parents will actually read those books themselves (as unlikely as that may be) and consider what exactly it is about those books that scares them before they require their child “opt out.” As I discussed in Please Stop Parenting my Children, if what they fear is that new ideas in those books will “brainwash” their children, all I can say is this:

[E]xposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

In the end, though, I suspect that many of the students whose parents force them to “opt out” will read those books as soon as they can on their own. For teenagers, is there a better indicator of what they should be doing than what their stodgy, traditionalist parents say is wrong?

Posted in Books, Law, Parenting | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

You Have a Bird and… What is That?

Cholera is Cuddly_Apparently (2)Last week, my three-year-old daughter took to school two recent favorites from her toy collection. Her teacher said, “oh, you have a bird and… what is that?”

My husband answered matter-of-factly: “Cholera.”

To which the teacher replied: “Cholera. Well, it’s lovely.”

Our daughter refers to it as “Collie,” the cuddly cholera microbe she picked up at the Mütter Museum.

Yes, that Mütter Museum, the one discussed in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine.* The Museum began with a donation from Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter in the mid-19th Century, and has grown since then to be one of the world’s greatest collections of anatomical specimens, antiquated surgical tools, and other medical curios.

It is my daughter’s favorite museum, which she visits frequently now that her Spanish class is one block away. Her favorite exhibits include the “soap lady,” whose remains are encased with a fatty substance called adipocere, and the Hyrtl skull collection, which includes brief comments on how each of the 139 people lived and died. (See here for more information on these exhibits).

It’s a quiet place, where people walk slowly from case to case, until my daughter asks in her high-pitched voice, “How did that person die? Why does that skeleton look sad?” Then everyone turns to look at the crazy parents who brought their small child to such a morbid museum.** They wonder why we would do such a thing. Well, the answer is that we take her there because the Mütter Museum provides a fascinating and important look at the human body and various medical conditions, and we don’t want our children to be afraid of or squeamish about those topics.

Right now, I’m pretty sure my youngest child will be a medical provider, a horror writer, or both. Remember her ghost stories?


*For my thoughts on Aptowicz’s book, see Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale?

**Admission is free for children under six.

***For more information about the cuddly cholera, see here.

Posted in Books, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 25 Comments

HarperCollins’ Win Is a Big Loss (And Not Only For Readers)

Kindle Julie of the Wolves (2)

Have you tried to download the e-book version of Jean Craighead George’s Newbery Award-winning Julie of the Wolves recently?

Well, it hasn’t been available in the U.S. since last April, when I was lucky enough to download it to my Kindle.

Between October 2011 and April 2014, Open Road Integrated Media sold the e-book version after offering George a 50% royalty that HarperCollins, the publisher of the paper versions, refused to match. Instead of paying George a fair royalty for her work, HarperCollins decided to pay its lawyers a very large sum of money to fight for the right to control the e-book version of Julie of Wolves on its own terms.

In a dubious opinion last March, which I discussed in The HarperCollins Lawsuit: Keeping Authors Aboard as Traditional Publishing Sinks, the Southern District of New York proclaimed HarperCollins the winner. As I summarized in Julie of the Wolves: An E-Book My Children Won’t Read Until They’re Older:

I disagree with the district court’s analysis of the 1971 George–HarperCollins contract because the terms of the contract (1) gave HarperCollins the right to publish the novel in book form (as defined in 1971); and (2) reserved to George all other publishing rights. Plus, even if the 1971 contract included e-books (back when there was no such thing as even a household computer), HarperCollins breached the contract by insisting on a meager 25% royalty instead the 50% royalty referenced in the very same sentence of the 1971 contract they claim gives them the e-book rights.

Eight months later, on November 6, 2014, the Court gave HarperCollins injunctive relief that prohibits Open Road from publishing Julie of the Wolves, in addition to $30,000 in damages and a little over $7,000 in costs.

What the Court did not give HarperCollins, though, was even one dime of the more than $1 million it requested in attorneys fees (which was only 70% of the fees that outside counsel charged to HarperCollins in connection with this case!) because Open Road’s position, while unsuccessful, wasn’t “objectively unreasonable.”

As the Court explained:

[T]he mere fact that the Court was able to interpret the contract as a matter of law does not mean that the contrary argument was clearly unmeritorious or patently devoid of support. Our reticence to characterize the losing position as objectively unreasonable is informed by the fact that this dispute arose in the context of a developing, and still somewhat uncharted, area of copyright law.

I’d certainly say that Open Road’s position wasn’t “objectively unreasonable” because, as I’ve previously explained, I would’ve decided the case in their favor!

So, who are the winners and losers here?

Well, the losers include readers and traditionally-published authors, because the Court has allowed a publishing corporation to hold an e-book for ransom by refusing to honor the terms of its own agreement with the author and leaving the author powerless to take the work to other publishers. However, that control comes at a hefty price for the company: well over a million dollars in outside counsel fees.

In the end, it seems that the only real winners here are the lawyers who have everything to gain from litigious corporations willing to pay high attorney fees to ensure their “right” to nickle and dime authors.

Congratulations, HarperCollins, for spending a million dollars to throw one of your own authors to the wolves.* You suck.


*So to speak. This analogy might not hold up for those who have actually read Julie of the Wolves!

**For the Nov. 6, 2014 Memorandum and Order, see here (PDF).

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale?

Dr Mutters MarvelsCristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, begins with this quote from 1859: “Thomas Dent Mütter is dead and the world will forget him.”

The eulogist, Philadelphia surgeon Richard J. Levis, feared that Dr. Mütter’s extraordinary contributions to surgical practice, medical training, and patient care would be lost to history. However, even a century and a half later, Dr. Mütter remains relevant, largely due his collection of medical specimens housed in a museum bearing his name: The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels (excerpt available here), Aptowicz brings a version of this extraordinary man to life, pulling from a variety of primary and secondary sources to describe how he furthered the medical field, groomed the next generation of physicians, and improved the quality of life for people otherwise doomed to be perceived as “monsters.” Dr. Mütter was an early practitioner of plastic surgery—a highly prestigious and growing field today—and even developed the Mütter Flap, a procedure surgeons still use to repair facial burns.

In Mütter’s candlelit era, women, the heavily clad victims of repressive gender norms, were particularly susceptible to serious burn injuries. As Aptowicz writes:

To understand how these ‘monsters’ were created, it is important to understand how women were forced to dress at this time: an imposed modesty that could literally kill them. Every morning, women began the process of dressing themselves for the day in the era’s notoriously restrictive clothing. Layer upon layers of cotton, wool, and silk… [Chapter 13]

I most appreciated Aptowicz’s comments about the overt gender discrimination endemic to mid-19th Century America. She does not glorify the time period; however, I do wonder about the extent to which her work is more an example of hagiography than biography, given that she rarely has a critical word for her subject, Dr. Mütter.

I also wonder to what extent this compelling read is truth versus fiction. Aptowicz provides us with detailed endnotes (for which I am grateful!), and explains that the descriptions of Mütter’s surgeries come from his published works. Did he write as much about his failures as he did about his successes? I don’t know, but Aptowciz appears to take Mutter’s descriptions at face value.

Aptowicz claims, “I mined the extensive research seen in these endnotes to draw the best possible conclusions…” Still, some of her descriptions of Mütter’s successes seem exaggerated, particularly considering how hard it is for even modern medicine to address the same types of injuries.

Here are just two examples:

  1. In retelling the story of Nathaniel Dickey, a twenty-five-year old Philadelphian who went to Dr. Mütter because his face was split down the middle, Aptowicz describes the brutal surgery, done in front of an audience and without anesthesia, and then writes: “With one tender hand cupping the back of his exhausted patient’s head, [Dr. Mütter] held the mirror in front of Nathaniel’s new and handsome face. Mütter smiled. And Nathaniel Dickey, disobeying doctor’s orders this one time, smiled back.” [Chapter 5; see the link to the excerpt, above]

    She lists the source as “Liston, Lectures on the Operations of Surgery,” a 1840s textbook, for which Mütter provided an additional 200+ pages of anecdotes. Even if the textbook described Dickey’s case this way, it is hard to believe what Mütter saw was really a smile, and not a grimace (as grateful for the procedure as Dickey may have been).
  2. In 1846-47, Jefferson Medical College treated 796 patients with over half of them receiving surgeries. Aptowicz writes, “Of the 796 patients… the college recorded among them only three deaths—a stunningly small number.” I’d say it’s more than just a stunning number. I’d say it’s an incredible one, considering that it predates germ theory and advances in sanitation and medical technology. It’s a far lower complication/death rate than Jefferson, still a well-regarded hospital, currently reports for various types of treatments.

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is an entertaining read, but I’m not sure I would classify it as non-fiction.

*Thank you to Shannon from River City Reading for bringing this book to my attention. She concludes, “Aptowicz paints an absolutely fascinating portrait of a man who should be remembered for much more than the medical collections he left behind.”


Posted in Books, NonFiction | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

Literary Blog Hop: Win The Next Book On Your Wish List!

Update (11/6/14): And the winner is….. bjsscribbles!


Welcome to my giveaway!

This time, I’m giving away a $25 gift certificate to Amazon.com OR Powells.com (winner’s choice).

This giveaway, which is part of Leeswammes’ Literary Blog Hop, is open from Saturday, November 1st until 11:59 PM (EST) on Wednesday, November 5th.

Literary Blog Hop Nov 2014

If you’re new to my blog, please feel free to look around. Check out:

In addition to book reviews, I also talk about parenting early readers, the writing process, and book-related legal issues, such as copyright and freedom of speech.


Anyone age 18+ may enter as long as they have a valid email address and live where Amazon or Powell’s will honor the gift certificate (which is a lot of countries!). You do not have to be a blogger, and you are under no obligation to follow my blog.

For a chance to win:

All you have to do is write a comment below, anything from “I’m in!” to what book(s) you might buy if you win the gift certificate. I love hearing about new books.

After November 5th, I will choose one winner at random (using Random.org’s Integer Generator to pick a winner, and counting comments but not replies to comments). I will contact the winner by email, and she/he must respond to my message within 48 hours.

Thank you for participating! Have a great weekend!

Please check out the other participating blogs:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Read Her Like an Open Book (US/CA)
  3. My Book Self (N. Am.)
  4. The Book Stop
  5. My Book Retreat (US)
  6. Books in the Burbs (US)
  7. Guiltless Reading
  8. Word by Word
  9. Juliet Greenwood
  10. BooksandLiliane
  11. Words for Worms (US)
  12. The Relentless Reader
  13. The Misfortune of Knowing
  14. The Friday Morning Bookclub (US)
  15. Readerbuzz
  16. Lavender Likes, Loves, Finds and Dreams
  17. The Emerald City Book Review
  18. Wensend
  1. Laurie Here
  2. A Cup Of Tea, A Friend, And A Book (US)
  3. Moon Shine Art Spot (US)
  4. I’d Rather Be Reading At The Beach (US)
  5. Lost Generation Reader
  6. Books Speak Volumes
  7. Mom’s Small Victories (US)
  8. Books on the Table (US)
  9. Orange Pekoe Reviews
  10. Lavender Likes, Loves, Finds and Dreams
  11. Words And Peace (US)
  12. Booklover Book Reviews
  13. Inside the Secret World of Allison Bruning (US)
Posted in Books, Misc. | 109 Comments

Characters on Parade: Crayons Are Out, Cats Are In

Crayons are out Cats are inOnce a year, all the creepy, crawly (or not) storybook characters leap from their pages and parade around my six-year-old twin daughters’ elementary school.

As I discussed in Banning Halloween: A Unnecessary Trick? and The Un-Halloween Parade!, our ultra-politically correct school has replaced a traditional Halloween celebration with a less controversial alternative. As I wrote last year:

[W]hile it’s not a violation of the First Amendment for American public schools to sponsor Halloween activities, I can’t blame our school for wanting to avoid controversy by renaming and repurposing the parade. The controversy relates to Halloween’s Pagan roots, which some claim conflict with their Christian beliefs even though these parades neither endorse a particular religion nor inhibit a person’s ability to practice her own religion. However, to the extent a new name (“character parade”) and a different purpose (promoting literacy) will defuse the controversy, I support the change. In the end, for my bibliophile children, it turned out to be more fun than a typical Halloween parade.

This year, though, my daughters were less enthusiastic about the character parade, despite their assiduous preparation for the big day, October 24th. They scoured their bookshelves for exactly the right book, which turned out to be The Day the Crayons Quit.

Crayons on strikeEach chose a character from Duncan’s box of crayons:

  • M. assumed the persona of the blue crayon, Duncan’s favorite color;
  • S. decided to be pink, her favorite color which Duncan hadn’t even used once in the past year; and
  • Three-year-old Z. decided to be the OCD purple crayon, who will “completely lose it” if Duncan doesn’t “start coloring inside the lines soon,” even though her school doesn’t actually celebrate Halloween in any form.

Then, two days before the day, the bullies struck. Two little girls and a boy made fun of S. when she announced her costume plans to the class. In the classroom next door, three little girls laughed at M.

One of M.’s friends came to her aid and said that she would also be a crayon, a blunt red one, but S. wasn’t as lucky. She would be the lone crayon in her class.

S. wasn’t happy about it, as she told us at the bus stop the next morning, the day before the parade. S. is the type of child who usually keeps her feelings to herself until, seemingly out of the blue, she explodes into tears. So, we thanked her for volunteering the information and told her that we’d do our best to get her a new costume in time for the parade.*

Spots GaloreShe wanted to be a house cat, but the best I could do during my lunch hour was a cheetah/jaguar/leopard costume, which I pieced together from items from three stores. Then I had to find a book to match.

With only a few minutes left before I had to be on a conference call, I located a copy of Lois Ehlert’s Lots of Spots, which displays a cheetah on the cover.** The collage-style animals accompanied by silly rhymes are better for a younger audience, and thus are potentially fodder for bullies, but it was my only option.

That night, after my daughters finished their homework and a couple of First In Math games, we started our nightly reading. Unfortunately, thanks to my poor planning, we didn’t get to Lots of Spots until S. was starting to fall asleep. So, I skipped over a few of the poems, sped through the rest, and then tucked the book into her bag.

The next morning, after a successful parade, I watched with anticipation as S. stood in front of her classmates and their parents to explain the relationship between her costume and her book: She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know! I’ve never read it!”

I was mortified as the whole class laughed–but at least S. was laughing too.


*I remember feeling terribly embarrassed by my Halloween costumes, such as the T-Rex costume in the picture at the bottom of The Brontosaurus Between Us.

**For some reason, Lots of Spots also features several “spotless” animals, like Zebras and Tigers.

Posted in Books, Children's Books, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 22 Comments

What A Pity To Learn How To Live So Late

Chanticleer Bright Photo Oct 2014

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed everyone with my post on Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, I’ve asked my other half to lift our spirits with a review of another book on death, Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun. As hard as it may be to believe, it’s possible to find an inspiring book about death written from a secular perspective. As my husband explains, Yalom’s book encourages us to accept our inevitable end by learning how to live.

From Mr. AMB:

Irvin Yalom, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford, often asks his patients: “what precisely do you fear about death?” Said one patient, “All the things I would not have done.” Yalom finds among his patients, and among numerous sources in psychiatry and philosophy, a “positive correlation between the fear of death and the sense of unlived life.”

In Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, Yalom aims to help readers identify the ways in which the fear of death has precluded them from living happy, fulfilled lives, and then face the fear down.

In my line of work,* I deal with a variety of experts — from neurosurgeons to nuclear engineers — and I often ask them, “what’s the best book in your field?” I had the occasion recently to ask a psychiatrist with 40 years of experience what he thought, and he pointed me to Existential Psychotherapy, also by Yalom. Said the psychiatrist, “it’s a wonderful mixture of philosophy, literature, and psychology,” and indeed it was. Yalom built the book around the four ultimate concerns of life — death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom — each of which was addressed through a hefty synthesis of philosophical writings from Epicurus to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, with heaping doses of existentialist writings from Sartre and Camus thrown in for good measure and then distilled through the pioneering work of psychotherapists like Viktor Frankl and Rollo May.

Existential Psychotherapy was published in 1980. In Staring at the Sun (long excerpt here), published in 2009, Yalom is 75 years old and confronting the approach of his own death with even greater purpose and intensity. Said Cicero, “to philosophize is to prepare for death,” and Yalom offers an unflinchingly non-religious approach to the inevitability of death, drawing heavily on Epicurus’ arguments against the fear of death.

St. Augustine wrote, “it is only in the face of death that a man’s self is born,” and nowhere is that more poignant and meaningful than in Yalom’s discussion of his work with cancer patients:

While working intensively over a ten-year period with patients facing death from cancer, I found that many of them, rather than succumb to numbing despair, were positively and dramatically transformed. They rearranged their life priorities by trivializing life’s trivia. They assumed the power to choose not to do the things that they really did not wish to do. They communicated more deeply with those they loved, and appreciated more keenly the elemental facts of life — the changing seasons, the beauty of nature, the last Christmas or New Year.

Many reported a diminishment of their fears of other people, a greater willingness to take risks, and less concern about rejection. One of my patients commented drolly that “cancer cures psychoneuroses”; another said to me, “What a pity I had to wait till now, till my body was riddled with cancer, to learn how to live!”**

Indeed, what a pity — and what a pity for any of us to wait even a moment to learn how to live.

Yalom’s primary recommendation is to take the time and attention to understand how the conscious or unconscious fear of death affects your approach to life, stare it down, and then build meaning into your life. As Yalom notes, one of Nietzsche’s favorite phrases was amor fati (“love your fate”), properly interpreted not as a recommendation to stoic acceptance of misery, but as a call to create a fate that you love.

As the writer Nikos Kazantzakis recommended, live life so fully you “Leave death nothing but a burned out castle.”


*Mr. AMB is a lawyer.

**I love this passage from Yalom’s book.

***The picture above is from Chanticleer, where my husband read this book.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments