Birds, Bees & Dead Bodies

How could I resist a book advertised as a “bird lover’s mystery”? I love birds, and I’m open-minded about mysteries, so I downloaded a copy of Die, Die Birdie by J.R. Ripley from my local library. This novel, the first in a series, focuses on Amy Simms, who opens a business for bird lovers in her newly purchased Victorian home. When we meet her, it’s two days before the store’s grand-opening. She’s low on birdseed and birding supplies, but that becomes the least of her worries when she finds a dead man in her storeroom:

I could now see the body of a medium-sized man lying on his back on the floor, his face twisted. He looked like he could practically reach out and touch my toes. Then again, judging by appearances, unless he had some zombie blood in him, I didn’t think he’d be touching anything.

I enjoyed this light mystery, once I adjusted to Amy’s choppy speaking style, brash demeanor, and poor judgement. Even her reaction to finding a bloodied body puzzled me. The hairs on her arms stand on end, but she doesn’t recoil, she doesn’t think much of the “sticky red substance” on her hands, and she doesn’t even call 9-1-1 until someone suggests it. The dead body is an annoyance to her, an impediment to her business, but she presses on with the grand-opening as planned.

That’s a weird way to behave, right? But maybe I’m the weird one. My aversion to blood and death (and any association with a serious crime) is strong enough to make me get the hell out of that house.

However, as with just about everything, there is no “normal” way to behave in response to a corpse, though fear is a common reaction. According to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, author of Fear of the Dead, Fear of Death: is it Biological or Psychological? (2012):

Reactions to a lifeless human body are varied… Beyond the variety of responses dictated by history, cultural context, and individual personalities, there seems to be a common denominator of fear, horror, and aversion.

One theory about why this fear exists stems from the belief that corpses may be a source of disease and contamination, possibly making a fear of them evolutionarily advantageous. However, there is little evidence to show that corpses pose a significant health risk, especially when the living–those carrying pathogens–present as much or more of a danger than the dead. As Beit-Hallahmi explains:

“The notion of pathogens in corpses is recent, modern, and unfounded. Ideas about the biological danger inherent in dead bodies are clearly tied to the deservedly triumphant germ theory of disease, but such ideas may still be simply a modern, secular, version of the ancient fear of the dead. The dangerous microbes have come to symbolise the evil inherent in fellow humans as they are being shockingly and irreversibly transformed.

[…]

The most important component of our reactions to the dead has to do with comprehension, belief, and meaning, experienced beyond any individual and automatic aversion. For any minimally reasoning human, an encounter with a corpse is also an encounter with one’s own future and final destination.” (citations omitted)

I highlighted that last sentence because I like it. It makes sense to me that we fear corpses because they remind us of our inevitable demise.

But back to Amy Simms: She certainly shows a degree of aversion to corpses, but not nearly as much of one as I would’ve expected. Had she run from the house and refused to return, perhaps local law enforcement would’ve been less likely to consider her the prime suspect in the person’s murder. But that would’ve made the story less interesting.

The Dream of Voting *Whenever* We Want

On this blog, when I asked readers to recommend a book for a school-age audience that is something Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not — a book by a person of color about a person of color — more than one person suggested Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.*

I’ve finally read it, and so have my 9-year-old twins.

This captivating memoir, written in verse, is better for a slightly younger audience than To Kill a Mockingbird is. In my opinion, based on what my kids read, Brown Girl Dreaming will likely appeal to kids in 4th through 6th grade, while To Kill a Mockingbird is probably best for kids in 7th through 9th.

Brown Girl Dreaming focuses on the author’s life as she grows up in the 1960s and 1970s in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York. We meet her family, her teachers, and her friends. We learn about her hopes and dreams. While To Kill a Mockingbird is a sensational portrayal of overt injustice against African Americans seen through the eyes of a white child, Brown Girl Dreaming conveys the daily reality of racism, often subtle, seen through the eyes of a black child. It’s a poignant and powerful book that children should read. I’m glad my twins have.

Woodson was born in Ohio with roots in South Carolina during a time of profound societal change. Near the beginning of the book, she writes:

I am born as the South explodes,

Too many people too many years

enslaved, then emancipated

but not free, the people

who look like me

keep fighting

and marching

and getting killed

so that today—

February 12, 1963

and every day from this moment on,

brown children like me can grow up

free. Can grow up

learning and voting and walking and riding

wherever we want.

That last part is the promise of the laws passed during Woodson’s childhood, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for many people, that promise is broken, thanks to our court system, which, for example, invalidated an important part of the Voting Rights Act only a few years ago.

Our highest court is poised to hear another important voting rights case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, et al, which stems from Ohio, where Woodson’s memoir begins. As I discussed in Will the Supreme Court Allow States To Penalize Americans Who Don’t Vote?, the case focuses on Ohio’s suspicious process of purging infrequent voters from its rolls. The process assumes that infrequent voters have moved, a faulty assumption that (1) ignores the fact that the right to vote includes the right not to vote, and (2) ultimately strips a fundamental right from people who haven’t voted because of obstacles to voting.

Voting isn’t easy. I say that as a local judge of election in a state that neighbors Ohio (and may employ a similar purging process). In my state, we have limited voting hours, no early voting (other than limited absentee ballots), long lines in many precincts, improperly printed poll books, and unresponsive voter services on the county level.

Those lucky enough to receive a “voter ready” slip then have to read the tiny print on the machine, navigate the confusing ballot design, figure out which buttons to push, and then how to exit. Every election, there are some people who continue to stand in the booth after they’ve cast their ballot, waiting for the curtains to open, which doesn’t happen automatically in my county. Do you know how embarrassed they are when they finally leave? They remind me of how awkward and alienating voting often is, and that’s the case even for those who are able to access the polling place and afford the time off from work and the transportation required to get there to wait in line.

As the National Disability Rights Network, et al wrote in their amicus brief (PDF) in this case:

[T]he burdens of long lines do not fall evenly on all voters. … Recent research shows that wait times in minority neighborhoods, which are also disproportionately poor, are about twice the length of wait times in mostly white neighborhoods… [The] increased obstacles to voting… fall doubly hard on low-income voters because ‘they possess few of the resources needed to overcome those costs.’ The natural result of the foregoing is dramatically lower turnout among low-income voters.

Thus, infrequent voting is not necessarily an indication that someone has moved and is therefore ineligible to vote in that location. Ohio is simply using that excuse to make it even harder for people to vote. It’s a voter suppression scheme that will only further ensure that one of the dreams in Brown Girl Dreaming — that “brown children… [c]an grow up learning and voting and walking and riding wherever we want” — will never become a reality for many people.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in this case on November 8th, but that date has been postponed.

______________________

*Thank you to Laila @ Big Reading Life & Peggy Adams for recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to me!

A School District Removed To Kill a Mockingbird From Its Lesson Plan & Replaced it with… What?

Last week, a public school district in Mississippi pulled Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum.

To Kill a Mockingbird, which addresses racial inequality in Alabama before the Civil Rights Movement, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Nevertheless, in 2017, the Biloxi School District found its content inappropriate for its 8th grade students. The Sun Herald, based in South Mississippi, said it “received a email from a concerned reader who said the [school district’s] decision was made ‘mid-lesson plan, the students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.'”

Does that mean students started reading it for class and then were told to stop (possibly in violation of the district’s policy)? How strange. This can’t be the first time the school district has learned that the novel contains the N-word. By my count, via the Kindle search function, the term appears in the novel 47 times, and Atticus Finch discourages his daughter from using it. He doesn’t call it racist, as we would today. Instead, when Scout asks him if he “defends [n-words],” he replies: “Of course I do. Don’t say [n-word], Scout. That’s common,” which is about as good as we can expect from a realistic portrayal of a man in Atticus’s position in that place and time.

The school district’s sudden decision is certainly perplexing, but is it also illegal as a violation of their students’ constitutional right to receive information?

Without more facts, I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it (despite the suspicious timing and explanation for the removal).

Generally speaking, courts in the United States tend to defer to the decisions school districts make concerning the curriculum. As I wrote in a previous post, On Parenting Other People’s Children (& Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere):

First Amendment law is notoriously vague and internally inconsistent, but we can draw a few principles from it. In Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), a plurality of the Justices held that a school board could not remove books from a library for the purpose of denying students access to unpopular ideas — but those same Justices noted the board “might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values.”

Six years later, in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the Supreme Court affirmed the power of schools to determine the content of their own speech, and held that a public high school was permitted to delete two stories from the school newspaper (one about teenage pregnancy, another about divorce) because the paper “bear[s] the imprimatur of the school” and the school’s actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” See Ward v. Polite, 667 F. 3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“The neutral enforcement of a legitimate school curriculum generally will satisfy [the Hazelwood test].”).

So, school districts have broad latitude over the lessons they teach our children, and Biloxi has made a decision that To Kill a Mockingbird will not be a school-sponsored vehicle for inculcating those lessons. The book remains in the school library for students to read on their own.

Based on the negative reaction the school district’s decision has received, it seems that many people believe that To Kill a Mockingbird should be required reading. There was a time I thought so too, but why did I feel that way? I read it for school, and loved it, but my husband, who grew up in a town next to Biloxi, can’t remember if he read it. It’s a good book, but it can’t be the only book capable of teaching us about compassion and racial justice.

Rather than insist that school districts keep the same reading list for decades, I encourage them to branch out and find new books that will resonate with their students (as I mentioned last week in my Annie Spence-like letter to the book).

On that note, I’ll ask a question I’ve asked on this blog before: What books should students read *instead* of To Kill a Mockingbird? I’m particularly interested in novels that are something To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.

So far, I haven’t seen any reference to what book Biloxi’s 8th grade students are reading instead of Harper Lee’s classic novel. I wonder if it’s an adequate replacement.

Dear Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, & More

Dear Fahrenheit 451, by Annie Spence, is a collection of humorous letters addressed to books many of us have read (or have pretended to read). She’s a librarian. As she explains in a letter to us, her readers:

I’m your public librarian! I walked you over to the Murakami that time. I helped you get the DVD about exploring New Zealand and you came back and told me about how wonderful your trip was and we both got tears in our eyes. Remember when you said you paid my salary and mumbled “bitch” under your breath when I wouldn’t do your kid’s research paper for them? I’m that bitch!

It’s an entertaining set of letters, best enjoyed in whatever order makes sense to the person reading them. As Margaret H. Willison recommended via NPR:

Read straight through, the form can become familiar, and Spence’s jokes can lose a bit of their spark, but if you jump around as your fancy suits you, sampling everything from her notes to known classics like the titular Fahrenheit 451 to her odder letters (highlights include “The Fancy Bookshelf at a Party I Wasn’t Technically Invited To” and “Book That Jeffrey Eugenides May Have Owned And Written Personal Notes In”), it’s a delight. (And you get the sense that that’s a methodology of which Spence herself would wholeheartedly approve.)

I started with Spence’s letter to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Spence isn’t intimately acquainted with the book, but she feels grateful to it for reasons I won’t spoil for you.

As anyone familiar with my blog probably knows by now, I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird many times. I loved it when I was a kid, but I’ve grown wary of it. To explain my change of heart, I’ve attempted to write a Spence-like letter (which unfortunately, contains no Spence-like humor!):

Dear To Kill a Mockingbird:

You were a good childhood friend, a book that not only cemented my love of reading but encouraged me to practice law like Atticus Finch, a principled, generous, and sensible man. However, the Atticus of my childhood is not the Atticus we know today, thanks to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a first draft that your publishers falsely advertised as your sequel.

Go Set a Watchman unmasked your unflattering beginning, stirring uncomfortable questions about your authenticity. How did you emerge from that “lumpy tale”? To what extent are you the product of New York City, where your publisher is based, rather than Monroeville, Alabama, your author’s hometown?

Undoubtedly, the controversial first draft, as well as other missteps your author’s representatives took, tarnished your legacy. But maybe it’s for the best. Maybe it’s time for a book that reflects the diverse experiences of a younger generation to take your esteemed place on library shelves and in school curricula.

Last weekend, I tried to give you away at a fundraiser, but no one took you home, so I left you in a box of donations, bound for a thrift store. I own two other copies of you, one in paper and the other “cold metal,” which my children will probably read someday. They read almost everything they get their hands on, including “boring” Supreme Court opinions, but for some reason, they haven’t read you yet. When they finally do, I wonder whether they’ll think you’re something special or just another book on the shelf. Most likely, they’ll gain some insight into me, and why I didn’t become a doctor as their grandmother had wanted, before moving onto the next book on their ever-growing “To-Be-Read” list. I hope that list never includes your “sequel.”

Sincerely,

AMB

Black Cat + White Cat = ? (A Child’s Thoughts on #KidLit)

I’ve already written about Black Cat, White Cat, a picture book by Silvia Borando that features two cats that become inseparable, but I want to add what my six-year-old said about it yesterday (she’s read it to me every night this week).

She said, “This book is fun to read and also great at teaching math!”

It’s not a math book, but she enjoys making its illustrations into equations. She draws imaginary lines between the pages in the book, and then adds the number of animals on one side to the number of animals on the other. For example (her imaginary lines and what she says are orange):

Interestingly, though, she hasn’t yet turned the ending of the story into an “equation,” which would look like this:

1 Black Cat + 1 White Cat = 6 Kittens

She’s always too excited by how cute the kittens are to think much about it. 🙂

Denying Transgender Kids Representation in the School Library: Does it Violate the First Amendment?

“The librarian’s responsibility,” writes William Katz in Collection Development: The Selection of Materials for Libraries, “is to separate out the gold from the garbage, not to preserve everything.”* Library budgets are tight, space is limited, and some books simply might not be suitable for some audiences, particularly young children.

Recently, the supervisor of library media at the Wichita Public School District decided that George, by Alex Gino, isn’t a book worth providing to their elementary students.

According to the Wichita Eagle:

Gail Becker, supervisor of library media for the Wichita district, said “George,” a novel by Alex Gino, contains language and references that are not appropriate for young children. She decided earlier this year that the book would not be included in a set of William Allen White master list titles provided to Wichita elementary schools.

Wichita school librarians are allowed to carry the book if they choose, Becker said, either by purchasing copies from their building funds or borrowing one from the district’s library department.

George is a heartwarming middle grade novel about a transgender child. My twins read it when they were eight. They didn’t find it confusing, and I didn’t find it inappropriate for them. There is a brief, non-graphic reference to “dirty magazines,” and a few references to private parts (generally without mentioning specific organs) that are relevant to the story and shouldn’t offend anyone.** Considering how mild the language and references are in the book, I wouldn’t be surprised if the school administrator’s stated criticisms of George are merely pretext to hide her disapproval of the book’s positive portrayal of a transgender child.

The administrator’s decision does not appear to be a complete bar on access to the novel in Wichita school libraries (a school librarian may purchase the book out of separate funds or borrow the book); however, she has inappropriately treated the novel differently from all the other novels on the William Allen White master list, and the intended effect of her biased decision is to make the novel more difficult for children to access.

Reading about this situation in Wichita has made me wonder about the constitutional limitations on book selection in public school libraries. At what point, if any, does it become unconstitutional to impede access to a book by refusing to select/acquire it?

The main U.S. Supreme Court case on students’ First Amendment right to receive information and ideas at public school libraries is Bd. of Ed. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), but that case did not address the issue of library selection and acquisition. Instead, it focused on the removal of books that were already there, finding that local school authorities “may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” 457 U.S. 853 at 872.

What about the book selection process? Would a public school violate the First Amendment rights of its students when it refuses to select/acquire a book because it disagrees with a form of diversity (such as transgender identity) featured in the book?

Practically speaking, if a school or library decided against acquiring a certain book, how would the public know about it? It’s rare to see an article like the one in the Wichita Eagle highlighting a selection/acquisition decision, and if members of the public don’t know about it, they can’t challenge it in court. Maybe that’s why we have so few published court cases that mention book selection.

Pico, an old decision about a high school library from a fractured court (there was no majority opinion), may be the best guidance we have. Although this case wasn’t about the ability of school officials to “add to the libraries of their schools,” the Court acknowledged that these authorities “have a substantial legitimate role to play in the determination of school library content.” Id. at 869.

Similarly, in United States v. American Library Association (“ALA”), 539 U.S. 194, 204 (2003), a plurality decision from 2003 about internet filters in public libraries, the Court said:

Just as forum analysis and heightened judicial scrutiny are incompatible with the role of public television stations and the role of the [National Endowment for the Arts], they are also incompatible with the discretion that public libraries must have to fulfill their traditional missions. Public library staffs necessarily consider content in making collection decisions and enjoy broad discretion in making them.

However, when a library refuses to acquire a book because it presents a specific viewpoint, such as a positive portrayal of a transgender child, it is more likely that the library’s decision violates the First Amendment. See, Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, Inc. v. Camdenton R-III Sch. Dist., 853 F. Supp. 2d 888, 899 (W.D. Mo. 2012) (distinguishing ALA, which involved denial of access to a particular subject, and finding that a school library could not filter internet content based on viewpoint without showing it meets a compelling interest).

Alex Gino’s George deserves to be on the library shelves as much as every other book on the William Allen White master list. A public school’s decision to bar it from the library certainly would raise the specter of viewpoint discrimination that may violate the First Amendment, even though school officials typically have broad discretion when it comes to selecting and acquiring library books.

For the Wichita schools, the good news is that every K-8 student in the district will have access to a copy of George in their school library because the author has managed to gather the funds to donate the copies. This book is important for children to read, and that’s especially true for those who are struggling with their gender identity or feel like they don’t fit in. It’s a shame that a school official in Wichita thought these children didn’t deserve to find a book in the school library that represents them.

________________________________________

 

*William Katz, Collection Development: The Selection of Materials for Libraries (1980) (quoted in United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194, 204 (2003)).

**There is one line that mentions “balls” in a way that I imagine many third and fourth graders won’t find shocking: “It looks like someone’s finally starting to grow some balls.” In this scene, a bully is referring to George. It does not encourage children to speak this way, and it’s a pretty mild reference to genitals. How sheltered does this school administrator think 8-year-olds are these days? Also, I’m curious to know if every other book in the school library is as bland and unrealistic as she expects George to be. I doubt it.

***Thank you to my sister for bringing the Wichita Eagle article to my attention. She is also the person who first recommended George to me.

Black Cat, White Cat #KidLit

My six-year-old loves Black Cat, White Cat, a picture book by Silvia Borando, because it’s simple enough for her to read it entirely by herself. She also loves it because it’s an adorable story about two cats, one that is awake during the day while the other is awake at night. Eventually, after the two cats shake up their routines, they meet and become inseparable all day and all night, making my daughter wonder: When do they sleep?

These cats are so inseparable that they end up with SIX KITTENS! (Be prepared to answer *how* this could happen if your child asks!).

Are you curious about what color the kittens turned out to be? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

We borrowed Black Cat, White Cat from the library, but I plan to purchase a copy to keep at home.

And here are our cats: