When Wisdom Isn’t Timeless

To satisfy the nostalgia that arrives annually with my birthday, I revisited Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, a 1966 coming-of-age novel that won the Newbery Medal in 1967. I read it for the first time in the early 1990s, when I was in the fifth grade. I stumbled across it in my school library on one of the lower shelves by the window facing a vegetable patch. I loved that vista, and I loved this book. It reminded me of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, another sentimental and gracefully-written story featuring a strong-willed young woman navigating the challenges of growing up.

Up a Road Slowly was Hunt’s second novel, published two years after her first, when she was almost sixty. The novel’s Aunt Cordelia is similarly mature, a woman who uses the lessons she’s learned in her life to guide her young niece, Julie Trelling.

When I first picked up this novel, I was only a few years older than little Julie was when she moved in with her Aunt, and much of Aunt Cordelia’s advice applied to me too. Julie is a child who makes mistakes, a child who can be cruel sometimes, a child who is learning. In other words, she’s a typical kid who shouldn’t be defined by the follies and missteps of childhood. As Aunt Cordelia explains to her, “You’re neither cruel nor mean; basically, you are a very good child. You’re just young.”

It’s a point I appreciate even more now that I’m a parent guiding my own children to adulthood. They will make mistakes, just like I did (and still do).

However, like virtually all classics, aspects of this novel are problematic, something I see more clearly now than I did when I was eleven. It’s a book from a time when people, even relatively enlightened ones, willfully ignored or actively suppressed society’s complexity and diversity. Reflecting this oppressive world, Up a Road Slowly makes no mention of racial, ethnic, or religious diversity. It is also hetero- and cisnormative, terms coined many years after the novel first appeared on the shelves. As a result, this book quietly promotes messages that cannot go unchecked, messages that could be especially painful for children who do not identify with these so-called norms.

For example, Aunt Cordelia, commenting upon a child she once taught, says, “Now that one was bound for trouble from the first. She was boy crazy before she was quite aware that there were two sexes.” She also says, “A woman is never completely developed until she has loved a man.”

Plus, while Julie is a young girl who embraces the freedom of blue jeans (instead of dresses) and questions her older sister’s behind-the-scenes research supporting the work of a man, she largely accepts that it’s “a man’s world.” She does her best to follow her Uncle Haskell’s advice to “learn how to play the game gracefully.”

I wasn’t so impressionable at age eleven to adopt Up a Road Slowly’s old-fashioned world view, and today, I am a public interest lawyer devoted to changing the discriminatory rules of “the game” through litigation, education, and public policy. I wish I could say Aunt Cordelia and Uncle Haskell wouldn’t recognize their norms in our society anymore, but that’s certainly not the case. It will be someday, though. I wouldn’t do the work that I do if I weren’t an optimist at heart.

Hope In The Dark: It Isn’t Easy To Take Away People’s Health Care

As I braced myself for the inauguration of the Trump Era, the first book I read in 2017 was Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. With each attempt by the GOP to strip Americans of our rights — including by passing HR 985 to protect civil rights violators* — I return to Solnit’s book to remember why I shouldn’t feel as helpless as I do.

Her book encourages me to look at our present moment with fresh eyes, searching for glimmers of hope. As she writes in Chapter 1:

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. We adjust to changes without measuring them; we forget how much the culture has changed.

We can’t return to the past, not completely, and even Republican leadership in the House seems to understand that fact to some small degree. The Republicans’ American Health Care Act — also known as Trumpcare thanks to Donald Trump’s enthusiastic support for the plan — keeps a few features of Obamacare, a plan they claimed in their 2016 Platform was “invalid in its entirety” (PDF). For example, the current version of Trumpcare continues to bar health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. It also maintains Medicaid expansion for a limited time.

Of course, Trumpcare isn’t Obamacare (here’s a good analysis of the differences via The Atlantic). It’s a far worse deal for the American people that will ultimately cause millions of Americans to lose insurance coverage. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office published a report on March 13th (PDF) indicating that:

[In] 2018, 14 million people would be uninsured under [Trumpcare] than under [Obamacare]… [and] the increase in the number of uninsured people relative to the number under current law would rise to 21 million in 2020 and then to 24 million in 2020 [as a result of changes in Medicaid enrollment].

After this report, some Republican lawmakers have backed away from Trumpcare. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from Florida, tweeted:

The concept of Americans losing health coverage somehow seems “un-American” now, with 60% of Americans saying the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage. Government-supported access to affordable health insurance is a victory that has been “consolidated into [our] culture’s sense of how things should be,” to borrow a phrase from Solnit.

GOP leadership will do as much damage as they can to our access to affordable health care, but they can’t simply turn back the clock, not without fearing calls, protests, and ultimately retribution in the ballot box. That gives me hope.

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*HR 985 passed the House on March 9, 2017 (220 yeas to 201 nays). Fourteen Republicans voted with all of the Democrats against the bill. It wasn’t enough to stop it. Now, the bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Fair access to the justice system should not be a partisan issue. I hope our Senate Republicans will stand up for what’s right by defeating HR 985.

Why Is Arkansas Rep. Kim Hendren So Afraid of Howard Zinn’s Books? #BookBanning

Zinn coverArkansas State Representative Kim Hendren thinks Howard Zinn’s books are so dangerous that he’s introduced state legislation to prohibit public and charter school children from reading them.* Zinn’s most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, presents a view of history that focuses on the experiences of marginalized groups that mainstream history has forgotten or mischaracterized.

I don’t know the basis of Hendren’s problem with Zinn’s books, though I have my suspicion that it’s rooted in racism and sexism. Why else would a legislator target only Zinn’s books, which try to focus the spotlight on the experiences of people of color, the working class, and women? Some people have criticized Zinn’s book as “biased,” but really, what history book isn’t skewed in some way? As Zinn writes in the Afterword of A People’s History:

I know that a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian.

Zinn’s method is no different from what any historian does. He’s just more honest about it than most.

Hendren is free to disagree with Zinn’s perspective of history, but he wants to do more than that. He wants to ban it. He wants to make sure that children in his state are only exposed to a limited, politically-approved version of history because, I presume, he believes new or “different” ideas will infect the impressionable minds of Arkansas’s youth.

Well, as I said in Please Stop Parenting My Children:

All I can say to folks like that 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.

If Hendren’s colleagues actually pass this short-sighted piece of legislation, they will probably find the law challenged in court under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (and other laws) — assuming Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s Congress and Donald Trump don’t make civil rights lawsuits impossible by then (I’m serious about that; see Lawmakers Want to Take Away Your Right to a Fair Trial).

*Here’s a link to Hendren’s legislation, HB 1834 (2017): http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2017/2017R/Bills/HB1834.pdf

Zahrah the Windseeker: For Those of Us Who Don’t Fit In #ReadDiverse2017 #DiverseBookBloggers

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Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu begins with these words:

When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.

“She’s… dada,” said the doctor, looking surprised.

“I can see that,” my mother replied with a smile.

Zahrah has dadalocks, clumps of hair inside of which grow “skinny, light green vine[s].” It’s an unusual, misunderstood trait in Zahra’s kingdom. Many people think it’s associated with strange powers. To avoid prejudice, Zahrah could cut her dadalocks; instead, she grows them down her back. Her hair is heavy, but as her mother has taught her, “it forces me to hold my head up higher.”

Nevertheless, Zahrah is self-conscious. She knows that she different from other children. As she explains:

In Kirki, where fear of the unknown was strong and where so much of the past had been pushed aside and forgotten, my dada hair was like a big red badge on my forehead that said, “I don’t fit in and never will.

Zahrah the Windseeker is a middle grade novel for children who sometimes feel like they don’t fit in. It’s for children who haven’t yet learned how to embrace the unique qualities that make them special. It’s also for adults, because, quite frankly, no one is too old for a gentle reminder to appreciate themselves.

Zahrah the Windseeker is an engaging fantasy novel featuring the friendship between Zahrah and a boy named Dari, who suffers a medical emergency after he and Zahrah venture into the dangerous jungle. Zahra can save him, but only if she learns to harness her powers. To do that, Zahrah must learn to accept herself and push beyond her boundaries. She cannot fear the unknown.

This is another important lesson for my twins, who are shy and rarely take risks. Meanwhile, my youngest, an extroverted, reckless child, needs the opposite lesson. Following Zahrah’s example, she would probably think it’s just fine to explore the woods by herself. But she’s only five and won’t be reading this book anytime soon. When she does, hopefully after she’s learned how to assess risks more appropriately, I hope she’ll enjoy this novel as much as her sisters did.

Here are their thoughts:

Samira: Zahrah the Windseeker is about a girl who must save her friend. I liked it because Misty the Gorilla takes care of Zahrah when she’s sick (though I probably shouldn’t have told you that). There is nothing I did not like about this book. Go read it!

Maram: Zahrah the Windseeker is about a girl named Zahrah and her friend Dari. Dari gets sick, and Zahrah needs to save him. My favorite character is the speckled pink frog that can be annoying but is also wise. Wise people are annoying sometimes. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this book, but I wanted to know more about where the town is located and how it got there. I wanted to know more about its relationship to Earth.

I read Zahrah the Windseeker because my daughters recommended it to me (after Akilah from The Englishist recommended it for them). It was a worthwhile read.

Broadening Our Worldview: Sri Lankan Literature

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On February 4th, Sri Lanka celebrated 69 years of independence from the British Empire. Sri Lanka is my mother’s homeland, but I grew up in the United States, where many people are incapable of finding Sri Lanka on the globe. The fact that Americans know so little about the world is sad. This ignorance explains, at least in part, why a large percentage (though not a majority) of American voters felt comfortable electing a xenophobic man for President (and xenophobia is only one of a long list of hateful traits this man exhibits proudly).

If more Americans made an effort to learn about the rest of the world, the United States would be a better country than it is right now. Not everyone has the resources to travel, but books are a wonderful way to broaden our worldview. I think that is particularly true of books for younger readers, who aren’t so entrenched in their views already.

To learn more about Sri Lanka, check out Cinderzena’s list of Sri Lankan literature (and bloggers!). As she explains:

I decided to create a list of some of the best, spell binding and intriguing Lankan literature written in English. Of course there are so many more wonderful masterpieces in both Sinhala and Tamil (which are both official languages of the country) but translations of them are also widely available. I tried my best to chose from a wide range of genres including translations.

Cinderzena was kind enough to include Anusha of Prospect Corner, the middle grade novel I wrote with my twins. We are Sri Lankan-American (I am half Sri Lankan; my Dad’s side is predominantly Irish with a mix of Sioux, African, and Basque). The novel was a way of exploring our identity as we grapple with what remains of our Sri Lankan heritage while we live thousands of miles away from our mother country.

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anusha-front-cover-smallerTo learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on:

Amal Meets Amal (Finally) #DiverseBookBloggers #ReadDiverse2017

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I don’t often come across a character in a book who shares my first name: Amal, which is Arabic in origin and generally means “hope.” Thanks to Amal Clooney,* more people in my part of the world are aware of it now, but when I was a kid, I didn’t come across any other “Amals” in reality or in fiction. The only exception is “Amahl” from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and not only is that character’s name spelled differently from mine, but we’re also different genders. His existence encouraged many people to assume I’m male when they see my name on paper, a mistake that used to bother me when I was a kid.

Back then, I would have appreciated a book like Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. This light, young adult novel features an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teenager named Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim. Like me, she knows what it’s like to look different from everyone else at school, to practice a different religion, and to have a name that people frequently misspell or misstate. As she recounts hearing:

Hey Amal, did you notice the sub teacher called you ‘Anal’ at rollcall this morning?

I’m familiar with that embarrassing typo too. I often receive mail addressed to “Mr. Anal [B.].” Spell check is not my friend.

It was nice to read a book with a character who knows what this feels like. Amal Abdel-Hakim is smart, funny, and brave enough to assert her identity even when she knows it won’t be easy. In the novel, she decides to wear a hijab full-time, including at her snooty private school. Ms. Walsh, the principal, is opposed to Amal’s choice, saying,

Amal… hmmm… I don’t want to- I mean, I want to tread delicately on this… sensitive issue… hmm… Did you speak to anybody about wearing… about abandoning our school uniform?

Ms. Walsh assumes that Amal’s parents are forcing her to wear the headscarf–which is not true–and then tells Amal that she’s violating the school’s “history of tradition” by deviating from the strict uniform policy. It’s an Australian private school, which the novel suggests might be able to get away with prohibiting students from wearing clothing associated with their religion. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens.

In my country, the United States, private schools are often able to impose strict dress codes that prohibit religious clothing or symbols because students at private schools don’t have constitutional rights, including the First Amendment’s right to freely exercise religion. Public schools are another matter. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”** However, courts have upheld many restrictions on student expression, including restrictions that impinge on religious freedom, especially if the restriction is viewpoint- and content-neutral. See, e.g. Jacobs v. Clark County School District, 529 F.3d 419 (2008) (upholding a dress code that prohibited a printed message that reflected a student’s religious beliefs).

These days, whatever the constitution may or may not require, many schools avoid the issue by choosing to have dress codes that include religious exemptions. Here’s one example (PDF): “Head apparel (hats and hoods) are not permitted to be worn inside the school building, with the exception of those worn for medical or religious purposes,” thus permitting hijabs and similar religious clothing.

I wonder, though, as my country becomes increasingly Islamophobic, will these exemptions disappear? If so, will the courts condone it? We shall see.

 

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*Thanks, but no thanks. Virtually everyone I meet for the first time points out that (1) I share my name with George Clooney’s wife, and (2) we’re both lawyers. I’m tired of having this conversation over and over again. [Update: And now that Amal and George are expecting twins, they’ll add that to the list too!]

**Public school teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights [] at the schoolhouse gate” either. However, at least in my state, they do not have the right to wear religious clothing at school. In Pennsylvania, a state law prohibits public school teachers from “wearing… any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect, or denomination.” 24 Pa. Cons. St. Ann. § 11-1112; see U.S. v. Bd. of Educ. for Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 911 F.2d 882 (3d Cir. 1990) (upholding the statute under an employment discrimination law because “barring religious attire is important to the maintenance of an atmosphere of religious neutrality in the classroom”).

***For another opinion on Does My Head Look Big in This?, see: Huntress of Diverse Books (“Abdel-Fattah took a topic that is discussed in such detail so often (nowadays and at that time) and was able to make me feel like I wasn’t being lectured.”)