Defining “Hendren”: An Update on a Lawmaker’s Attempt to Ban Howard Zinn’s Books

Here’s an overdue update on Arkansas Representative Kim Hendren’s unconstitutional bill to ban Howard Zinn’s books from public and charter schools in his state:

Initially, Hendren’s bill prohibited public and charter schools from including any of Zinn’s books (or any materials about Zinn’s books) in the curricula under any circumstances. See Why is Arkansas Rep. Kim Hendren So Afraid of Howard Zinn’s Books?

A few weeks later, on March 21, 2017, Hendren sponsored an amendment that would permit schools to include Zinn’s books only if those materials are presented in “a balanced manner that considers other opinions and points of view.”

It may seem like a good idea to require the presentation of other “points of view,” but there’s always a question about what that means. Would a teacher have to counter Zinn’s People’s History of the United States with racist garbage? Or would a traditional history book that whitewashes and softens the horrors of our past be sufficient?

Thankfully, it doesn’t look like we’ll have to find out. Earlier this month, Common Dreams and the Arkansas Times blog reported that Hendren’s bill died in committee. Based on Hendren’s amendment to his own bill and its short lifespan, I can only assume he heard an earful from his constituents.

In my opinion, this is an example of how we, the people, really do have the power to impact the legislative process. Making a phone call or writing a letter to a lawmaker seems so insignificant, but it’s not. As Zinn said in The Optimism of Uncertainty (and elsewhere), “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

While I doubt Hendren heard from millions of people, he certainly heard from many, making the demise of his bill an example of Howard Zinn’s point. The death of his proposed law doesn’t quite “transform” the world, but I hope the experience has taught Arkansas’s lawmakers an important lesson about promoting censorship. We’ll see.

Unsurprisingly, Hendren’s censorship effort had the opposite effect on access to Zinn’s ideas. As Bill Bigelow reports in Common Dreams (linked above):

In response [to Hendren’s bill], the Zinn Education Project—a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, which I co-direct—offered to send free copies of a Howard Zinn book and A People’s History for the Classroom lessons to any Arkansas middle or high school teacher or school librarian requesting them.

In just a few days, we were flooded with requests. Many of them came accompanied by poignant notes about why people were eager to get the materials. One middle school librarian in Western Grove, Arkansas, near the Missouri border (population 373), wrote, ‘The proposed bill to ban Mr. Zinn’s book has fired up the Arkansas librarian world. To combat ignorance, I must have knowledge. I respectfully request a copy so I can educate my tiny corner of the world.’

By the beginning of April, nearly 700 Arkansas teachers and school librarians received copies of Zinn’s books. That’s wonderful, isn’t it?

Bigelow also detailed his conversation with the man responsible for spreading those books across the state, Kim Hendren, who reportedly explained the motivation for his bill like this:

I think my constituents had seen some stuff on the internet or media. And Rick Santorum had mentioned it. I’d never heard of Howard Zinn. I’d never heard of the man.

Wow. I’ll give Hendren credit for engaging in the conversation, even if his responses are laughable. In addition to learning a thing or two about the stupidity of censorship, Hendren also needs to learn a lesson about emulating Rick “Man-on-Dog” Santorum, whose name is synonymous with an occasional byproduct of anal sex.

If Hendren isn’t careful, he might be appalled to learn how the American people will define his last name someday.

Here is HB 1834 in its different stages:

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher #MiddleGrade #KidLit

Recently, my family met the Fletchers, the fictional stars of Dana Alison Levy’s middle grade novel, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I read aloud to my daughters as we waited for the school bus. The Fletcher family consists of two dads, Jason and Tom, and four boys of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds named Sam, Jax, Eli, and Frog (short for Bull Frog, AKA Jeremiah). The Fletchers are different from my family in some ways, but we can relate to many of their daily triumphs and tribulations, such as dealing with awkward questions and rude stares.

Here’s an example from Chapter Five:

In the seats, dozens of grown-ups stared blankly at the Fletchers….

Papa stepped forward, smiling. “I’m Jason Fletcher—please call me Jason. And this is my husband, Tom Anderson.”

Dad reached out his hand, also smiling. They had been through this many times, Eli knew… [He] stared at his spotless desk, his face burning. He wasn’t embarrassed about his family—it wasn’t that. It was just… there were so many of them. And so many boys. He knew the questions were coming.

[…]

“Are those guys all your brothers? How old are they?” Griffin said. […] “You guys don’t look anything alike.”

[…]

“We’re all adopted,” Eli said, edging toward Dad, who was reading the compositions taped to the wall. Eli hoped that the questions would stop now. But before he walked away, he heard Mika say, in a loud whisper, “Why do they have two dads? Don’t they have a mom?”

It was apparently loud enough for Frog to hear too, and before Eli could answer, Frog spoke up. “Of course we had moms! Don’t you even know how babies are made? It takes a man and a woman, and the egg meets the—”

Our family’s situation is different, but we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of insensitive interrogations because some people don’t understand how our mixed-race family “belongs” together, a topic I explored with my twins in our middle grade novel, Anusha of Prospect Corner.

Like 6-year-old Frog Fletcher, who responds to Mika’s question with a reproductive biology lesson, our Sri Lankan-American Anusha Smyth addresses the ignorance she encounters about where her red hair “comes from” with a science-based answer, a similarity my twins noted as we read Chapter Five together.

We spent time discussing the chapter, in part because it provided a piece of evidence that contributed to my kids’ understanding of the time period of the book. They had been confused about the time period because one of the Fletcher boys had considered taking a paper-route, an old-fashioned job my kids know of only from stories about their Granddad’s childhood.

When my girls learned that Tom is Jason’s husband, my daughter said: “Oh, so they’re married. Then it takes place now because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal until recently.”**

“Sort of,” I replied, noting that the story seems to take place in Massachusetts, where marriage equality became the law well over a decade ago as a result of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (2003). That decision came down from the Massachusetts Supreme Court at the end of my first semester of law school. I was in Massachusetts at the time, and I wondered how long it would take for marriage equality to reach the rest of the country.

Twelve years later, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared that United States Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry. 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).

There are some people in our country — such as those responsible for the 2016 Republican Party platform — who want to turn the clock back to a time when real families like the fictional Fletchers had little or no legal protection for their love of each other, but judging from my children’s positive reaction to The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, I think those people are fighting a losing battle. My kids accept the Fletchers for what they really are: a fun family worth reading about. They and other members of their generation are our future, not those people who want to reinstate the past.

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*We read this book after it was recommended by @raincityjane @thelogonauts on the #diversekidlit twitter chat (for a recap, see here: http://www.thelogonauts.com/2017/04/chat.html)

**A later reference to Minecraft helped us narrow the time period to “pretty much now.”

A Shared Superpower & Another Anne of Green Gables

One of my daughters shares more than her red hair and Sri Lankan-American background with the main character of Anusha of Prospect Corner. They share a “superpower” too. Anusha is uncommonly good at finding four-leaf clovers, and yesterday, my daughter showed she is also quite good at finding them. We stuck her clovers in a copy of Anusha, a middle grade novel we wrote together:

Anusha of Prospect Corner is a multicultural take on L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I love adaptations of classics, both in written form and on the screen, and I am looking forward to watching the new retelling that will debut on Netflix in the United States on May 12th. Anne is already airing in Canada, which gave us L. M. Montgomery and her timeless creations in the first place.

This new adaptation focuses on some of the darker aspects of Anne Shirley’s life. In a recent interview on Smithsonian.com, Moira Walley-Beckett, the show’s producer and writer, said:

I guess I don’t really agree that it’s a darker take. I think that it’s a deep, honest take. All of Anne’s backstory is in the book. She’s had a terrible early life. She talks about it in exposition, and I just took us there dramatically.

Yes, Anne’s early life was bleak. When I read the book with my daughters, before we wrote Anusha of Prospect Corner together, they teared up at these words:

Marilla asked no more questions. Anne gave herself up to a silent rapture over the shore road and Marilla guided the sorrel abstractedly while she pondered deeply. Pity was stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had—a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth.

We will watch Anne together next month.  I wonder how my children will react to seeing the story behind these lines transferred to the screen.

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PS. If you’d like to see a picture of a six-leaf clover I found last summer, see A Review of Anusha of Prospect Corner (scroll to the bottom).

Writer’s Block: There’s a Pill for That

Author Robert Anthony Siegel set out to resolve his writer’s block by taking a pill, a fast-acting solution to a serious problem.

In this case, though, the pill he wanted was a placebo on its face.

A placebo is a sham, but as Siegel mentions in Why I Take Fake Pills, research suggests that placebos seem to mitigate our ailments even when we know the cure isn’t “real.” These results remind me of my favorite line from Peppa Pig (please indulge me): “It’s better than real; it’s pretend!” It’s lovely to imagine an effective treatment that doesn’t have side effects and on which you can’t overdose.

Hoping to harness the real power of pretend pills, Siegel explained his problems to John Kelley, the deputy director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter, who said:

‘I think we can design a pill for that… We’ll fine-tune your writing pill for maximum effectiveness, color, shape, size, dosage, time before writing. What color do you associate with writing well?’

For Siegel, that color was “gold,” which translates to yellow in the pharmaceutical world.

Siegel’s magic pills worked once he’d reached a “therapeutic dose.” The sentences he produced were “awkward and slow,” at least in his opinion, but certainly better than nothing.

His experience has made me think about the methods I’ve used to overcome writer’s block, a challenge I face in multiple parts of my life. As A. M. Blair, I write middle grade and contemporary fiction, and under a similar (but different) name, I practice law, a job that requires me to pound out memos, briefs, and other written documents that don’t always flow easily from my anxiety-ridden brain.

Lately, I’ve been taking specific measures to address writer’s block: I take a walk, brew myself a cup of tea, close the door, and set a timer for 25 minutes. If I can get through those 25 minutes, then I’ll have something on the page. That’s a start, something to build on for as many 25 minute-increments as it takes to finish the project.

Maybe I’ll add a placebo pill to my ritual. Couldn’t hurt, right? My capsules would be purple.*

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*However, I’m not willing to pay what Siegel paid for his! Check out his article, Why I Take Fake Pills (linked above), to find out how much he paid and why.

**Definition of “Placebo” is from Merriam-Webster.

On Challenging LGBTQ #DiverseKidLit

While many of us demand that the publishing industry give us books that reflect our diverse experiences, there are others out there in favor of the opposite: the production and promotion of only white, heteronormative, cisgender, ableist stories. Last year, those people demanded that libraries and schools in their communities ban several books that feature LGBTQ themes.

The top five (of the ten) most challenged books on the American Library Association’s 2016 list are:

  • This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki & illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier
  • George by Alex Gino
  • I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel & Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
  • Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

All of these books include LGBTQ characters and themes.

To people with the audacity to challenge these books, it’s not enough to prohibit their own children from reading them. They feel a need to prevent everyone’s children from reading them too. And for what? To protect impressionable youth? Books like Alex Gino’s George, which features a transgender child, don’t “brainwash” children into being anything other than who those children already are. As I’ve said several times before, initially in Please Stop Parenting My Children (2013):

All I can say to [book challengers] is this: exposure 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.

But I’m not going to waste my time arguing with those people. They’re fighting a losing battle. The more they kick and scream about a book, the more children will want to read it, and my sense is that librarians and the courts will probably protect their access to it (though not all of the time, especially when it comes to school curricula).

Our most recent case on book banning from the U.S. Supreme Court, our highest court, is Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), an old case and a mere plurality opinion (which means fewer than five Justices agreed on it).  For now, though, it is our best indication of where the law stands on the issue. That means that public schools and libraries, to which the First Amendment applies, may not remove books from the shelves “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Pico, 457 U.S. 853 at 872.

The people who challenged George and the other books on that list might not like the ideas contained in those stories, but those “ideas” are fictional depictions of a reality they cannot change or ignore. Diversity exists whether they like it or not, and they can’t hide that fact from their children (or anyone else’s) forever.

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*Thanks to @thelogonauts (of The Logonauts blog), whose tweet inspired this post.

 

The Scent of Old Books: How Do You Describe It?

“The smell of books intrigues and inspires,” Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic write in their research article, Smell of Heritage: a Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours. They contend that smells, such as the scent of historic paper, are part of our cultural heritage and worthy of conservation and inclusion in museums. As they explain, citing guidelines by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England: “the smells of a place are considered of value because they affect our experience of it. For this reason, they should be taken into account when defining the character of a historic area.”

To explore the identification and documentation of historic smells, the researchers studied the odor of old books, looking for ways to communicate how it smells. The sample book was Les Chardons du Baragan, published in 1928 and purchased from a second-hand bookstore in London. Study participants smelled an extract of this book as one of eight unidentified odors, which included “chocolate,” “coal fire,” “old inn,” “fish market,” “dirty linen,” “coffee,” and “HP sauce.”

Participants described the historic book smell in a variety of ways. The word “chocolate” was the most prevalent description. The next most common descriptions were “coffee,” “old,” “wood,” and “burnt.”

Meanwhile, participants chose the following words to describe the smell of Wren Library at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a historic library: woody, smoky, earthy, vanilla, musty, sweet, almond, pungent, medicinal, floral, fruity, green, rancid, bread, citrus, sour, and creamy.

The authors of the study connected this information to a chemical evaluation of the historic paper odor and created a odor wheel so that “untrained noses could identify an aroma from the description and gain information about the chemical causing the odour.”

I, with my “untrained nose,” have always loved the smell of old books, especially the earthy fragrance that permeated my undergraduate library. I described this aroma in my new adult novel, Two Lovely Berries (2014), like this:

I spent much of my time at Yale, probably too much of it, in Sterling Memorial Library, a grand building in need of no ivy, where the stacks led to well-hidden reading rooms that were empty enough for me to think or daydream without interruption. A faint musty scent hung in the air, the smell of tradition and scholarship; I wore it like a perfume.

Fond memories of that “faint musty scent” at the same alma mater aren’t the only similarities between Nora Daly’s fictional life and my real one, but it’s all I’m willing to admit.  😉

Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, CT

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*Cecilia Bembibre & Matija Strlic, Smell of Heritage: A Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours, Heritage Science (2017) (linked above).

**See also, The Quest to Better Describe the Scent of Old Books (Smithsonian.com)