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:

Anusha Of Prospect Corner: “A Delight From The First Word To The Last”

Via Jaclyn at Covered in Flour:

Anusha of Prospect Corner is a delight from the first word to the last.  A modern, diverse and multicultural retelling of Anne of Green Gables, Anusha introduces Anusha Smyth, who leaves her father’s house in a cookie-cutter suburb she calls “Camazotz” (love the L’Engle shoutouts!) to live with her mother, Pramila Carter, and uncle Manoj in a big, old, rambling house in Philadelphia.  Like Anne, Anusha is a redhead and a dreamer.  Anusha likes her red hair, but is sensitive when questioned about how she could be a redhead and also have Sri Lankan heritage. […]

I’ve been reading about this project on Amal’s blog since she and her twin daughters first started working on it together, and I’m so very glad that I finally got to sit down with the book.

Thank you, Jaclyn, for reading our book and for sharing your thoughts on it! For her full comments, see here. I’ve known Jaclyn through our blogs since 2012, but I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the beginning of the summer. We’re both huge fans of L. M. Montgomery’s work.

To learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on:

To learn more about how we wrote this book, see:

Does A Kid In Your Life Want A “KinderGuide” For Jack Kerouac’s On The Road? Too Bad.

Back in January, a group of literary estates (Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Arthur C. Clarke) and publishers (Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) filed a lawsuit against Moppet Books over a series of “study guides” of mid-20th Century classics for young children. Moppet Books did not have a license to create “guides” of these copyrighted, classic works.

Around the time the complaint was filed, in What Every Kindergartener Needs: A Study Guide for Jack Kerouac’s On The Road?, I wrote:

Without examining the allegedly infringing work against the original novel, I can’t say whether I think these KinderGuides violate copyright law. My gut sense is that it could be copyright infringement if the KinderGuides add little new content to the original works (and thus aren’t sufficiently “transformative”) and use a substantial portion of the original works. We’ll see what happens with the case.

So, here’s the update:

On July 28, 2017, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted summary judgment on the issue of liability to the literary estates and the publishers (meaning that the Court found Moppet Books responsible for copyright infringement without a trial).

On August 15, 2017, the Court permanently stopped Moppet Books from reproducing, distributing, advertising, or transmitting the infringing works in the United States, and then ordered Moppet to destroy all remaining copies of the works. There’s a trial scheduled for October 2, 2017 to resolve the issue of “willfulness” for the purpose of assessing damages.

On September 7, 2017, Judge Jed S. Rakoff issued an opinion explaining these rulings. (available here as a PDF).  The Court said:

  • “By any reasonable comparison, defendants’ Guides copy substantial aspects of the themes, characters, plots, sequencing, pace, and settings of plaintiffs’ Novels. Indeed, that is their stated purpose.”
  • “Here, though defendants’ Guides add additional material at the end, specifically a few brief pages of ‘analysis,’ ‘Quiz questions,’ and information about the author, they are primarily dedicated to retelling plaintiffs’ stories.”
  • “Fair use… is not a jacket to be worn over an otherwise infringing outfit. One cannot add a bit of commentary to convert an unauthorized work into a protectable publication.”

I’m not surprised by the Court’s rulings or its opinion, despite my sympathy for creators of derivative works of old books that should be in the public domain by now (but aren’t).* I doubt many six-year-olds are particularly interested in a “study guide” of On The Road or The Old Man and the Sea, but it’s kind of sad to think no one will ever have one unless the authors’ distant heirs or the publishing corporations allow it.

*See John Steinbeck & The Cost of Centurial Copyright Protection.