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.

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.

John Steinbeck & the Cost of Centurial Copyright Protection

John Steinbeck passed away in 1968, leaving behind a litigious set of heirs who have fought over the right to control his literary work for decades. The most recent iteration of this legal battle, this time between Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law and Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, ended with a jury award of $13.15 million to the stepdaughter.

Here’s the backstory:

  • Through his will, Steinbeck left ownership of the copyrights he renewed in his lifetime to his wife and a $50,000 trust to each of his two sons (from a previous marriage).
  • By law, Steinbeck’s wife as well as his sons were entitled to royalty payments for the works renewed after his death (the law required publication/registration and permitted renewal back then; it’s different now).
  • A 1983 settlement agreement increased the sons’ share of the royalty payments in exchange for giving Steinbeck’s wife control over the exploitation of the copyright (which means the right to license the work to third parties, turning it into royalty-generating movies, spin-offs, etc).
  • Steinbeck’s wife died in 2003, leaving ownership/control of the copyrights to her heirs, including Steinbeck’s step-daughter.

In the most recent litigation, the step-daughter alleged that the son and daughter-in-law thwarted attempts to turn Steinbeck’s works into royalty-generating projects, including new movies (projects that purportedly interested Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence).

The jury sided with the step-daughter, and the daughter-in-law has stated she will appeal. After that, let’s hope the battle over the copyrights to Steinbeck’s work will finally come to an end. Unfortunately, it’s possible that new legal issues will arise among the heirs until John Steinbeck’s work falls into the public domain, a date that the law has pushed back numerous times since Steinbeck’s death.

Based on the law at the time Steinbeck wrote his novels, when authors were entitled to two consecutive 28-year-terms of copyright protection (56 years total), his books would be in the public domain by now. However, the 1976 amendments to the Copyright Act changed the copyright period for Steinbeck’s novels to 75 years. Then, in 1998, for works still within the 75-year-period, amendments to the law extended copyright protection by another twenty years. The extension was challenged as unconstitutional but, in 2003, the Supreme Court upheld it 7-2 in Eldred v. Ashcroft. The result is 95 years–nearly a century–of copyright protection.

Think of all the judicial resources our courts would’ve saved had Steinbeck’s works entered the public domain after 56 years instead of 95? Think of all the derivative works–the retellings, the new movies–we could’ve enjoyed by now?

Oppressively long copyright protection does nothing more than stifle creative derivative works and enrich heirs who often have merely a tangential relationship to the person who created the work. As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent in Eldred:

[A]ny remaining monetary incentive is diminished dramatically by the fact that the relevant royalties will not arrive until 75 years or more into the future, when, not the author, but distant heirs, or shareholders in a successor corporation, will receive them. … What potential Shakespeare, Wharton, or Hemingway would be moved by such a sum? What monetarily motivated Melville would not realize that he could do better for his grandchildren by putting a few dollars into an interest-bearing bank account?

With Steinbeck’s books, we may finally see more derivative projects develop, but only if the creators of those projects are willing and able to pay the price Steinbeck’s wife’s heirs want for it.

Charlottesville, Common Ancestry, & Change

As I watched the news coverage of the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I thought about a historical figure I didn’t expect to think about at a time like this: Justice John Marshall Harlan.

Born in Kentucky in 1833, Harlan was a defender of slavery who ultimately changed his views enough to support Reconstruction and write the sole dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case in which the majority of the United States Supreme Court (everyone except for Harlan) upheld racial segregation laws under the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Harlan’s dissent in Plessy isn’t progressive by today’s standards–for example, he acknowledged the “dominance” of the “white race” and exhibited anti-Chinese sentiment–but it was certainly progressive for that all-white, all-male court at the turn of the last century. He proclaimed, “There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” and stated that the majority opinion’s decision to uphold racial segregation would “prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case,” which, if you remember, is the case from 1857 that denied African Americans citizenship.

Harlan was right about Plessy, as the Supreme Court acknowledged in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, which finally declared race-based segregation laws and policies unconstitutional. He was ahead of his time for someone of his privileged background.

Why were Harlan’s views different?

As many scholars have argued, he had a brother who was a slave, a man who became free at the age of 32. His name was Robert Harlan. They had the same father, and they also had what appears to be a close relationship.

According to historian Allyson Hobbs in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing In American Life, a book I discussed on this blog in A Family Secret:

It is plausible that John Marshall Harlan’s relationship with Robert Harlan shaped the Supreme Court Justice’s enlightened views on race and particularly his dissent in the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.

By the majority’s reasoning in Plessy, with which Harlan disagreed, legislatures could segregate the two Harlan brothers without violating the Constitution. Justice Harlan had a personal basis for seeing the repugnance of segregationist laws, a basis the other Justices either didn’t have or didn’t acknowledge.

I hope people do not need to feel directly affected by racism to care about it, but personal connections seem to make a difference.

While watching those angry white men marching in Charlottesville, I wondered how they would react if they met family members who weren’t white. Or, perhaps more likely, learned through a DNA test that their lineage included African, Asian, Native American, Jewish, Middle Eastern, or Aboriginal ancestry. As genetic studies have shown, many Americans come from racially mixed backgrounds and don’t know it.

For those who somehow pride themselves on their whiteness, would it make a difference to know that they wouldn’t exist but for the ancestors from diverse backgrounds they abhor? Wouldn’t it show them that we are all connected?

Sadly, maybe not. In a Mother Jones profile of right-wing extremist Richard Spencer (the one who was punched on camera on Inauguration Day), he confided that a genetic test revealed he had a small percentage of African heritage. But he dismissed it entirely, saying, “I almost wonder if this is thrown in [by 23andMe] for shits and giggles. Like, ‘We’re all Africans.’”

There may be no hope for white supremacists who are so morally bereft that they proudly display their bigotry. But what about the people who don’t purport to hold these beliefs but who support a government agenda that exacerbates racial inequality (an agenda, coupled with rhetoric, that emboldens white supremacists)? I wonder how they would respond to a “surprise” in their ancestry. Are they capable of changing?

*See also, Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?


ETA: I hadn’t seen this article–White Nationalists Are Flocking To Genetic Ancestry Tests. Some Don’t Like What They Find by Eric Boodman/STAT— when I was writing this post, but I wish I had. It includes interesting information about how white supremacists respond to DNA test results and how genetic testing companies analyze genetic material.

Five Variations of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Persuasion, by Jane Austen, revolves around Anne Elliot, the only sensible living member of the Elliots of Kellynch Hall, a family struggling to finance their exorbitant lifestyle in 19th Century England. Anne’s evolution from a persuadable, cautious youth to a mature romantic has inspired scores of modern retellings, five of which I discuss here.

In these reimagined versions of Persuasion, each modern author highlights some aspects of Austen’s original while omitting others. It’s risky to deviate from a beloved classic. What do you keep? Why? What new elements do you introduce? No retelling can ever live up to the original, but, hopefully, it will remind readers of what they love about the original while introducing them to something new and worth reading for its own merits.

These are the Persuasion adaptations I read this month (listed in chronological order by year of publication):

In this modern tale, Anne Elliot is Annie Markham, the daughter of a rude and egotistical businessman who desperately needs a management consultant to stay afloat. That consultant turns out to be Annie’s ex-boyfriend, Jake Mead. Their relationship broke apart so viciously that I almost didn’t want them to get back together, but the pair manages to overcome their differences and live happily ever after.

This modern adaptation of Persuasion stars Anna Elliot, a professor in England who broke Rick Wentworth’s heart when she pursued a degree in Russian at Oxford instead of running off with him. I’ll be honest that I would’ve made the same choice as Anna―call me a “hopeless academic” 😉 ―but I was definitely rooting for Anna and Rick the second time around.

In this post-apocalyptic retelling Persuasion, Anne Elliot is Elliot North, the daughter of a wasteful “Luddite.” The Luddites own the estates on which the “Posts” and the “Reduced” live and work as servants. Elliot falls in love with Kai, a “Post” servant, but their young relationship is doomed. Years later, Kai returns with a new name, Captain Malakai Wentforth, and a new purpose: challenging the social order. This novel borrows heavily from Persuasion, but its setting and additional themes make it a refreshing homage to Austen’s classic novel.

Set in Old Lyme, Connecticut, this modern adaptation of Persuasion emphasizes the romantic elements of Austen’s original―focusing on Hanna Elliot and Derick Wentworth’s second chance at love―while downplaying other themes of Austen’s work, such as the Elliot family’s tenuous financial circumstances. In fact, Hanna isn’t even related to the Sir Walter-based character in this retelling, and she has only one sister, Mary. Overall, it’s a clean romance that lovers of Austen’s original tale are likely to enjoy.

While I was on the subject of Persuasion retellings, I decided to read my own adaptation for the first time since I published it in 2015. Enough time has passed since I wrote it that it actually felt somewhat new (and I no longer felt the urge to edit it!). This story takes place in my hometown just outside of Philadelphia, where the Elkins family lives on a crumbling 34-acre estate (based on a real place). After the matriarch dies under suspicious circumstances, the family turns to the civil court system to seek justice for her death. Their lawyer is Amelia’s ex, a man with no intention of rekindling his romance with the woman who broke his heart, especially if doing so could amount to an ethical violation. After all, lawyers aren’t supposed to date their clients.


You’d think reading a series of novels, back-to-back, all based on the same classic source would get “old” eventually, but I guess I haven’t hit my limit of Persuasion spin-offs yet. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks!

*I wrote this post as part of Austen in August, a reading event hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader. Check out the master post for more information.


Childfree Aunts, Irish Americans, & The Last Little Blue Envelope

Ginny Blackstone has horrific taste in men.

She’s the 18-year-old main character of the Little Blue Envelope series by Maureen Johnson. I wonder if I would’ve felt differently about her taste if I’d read this set of novels when I was closer to Ginny’s age. My taste in partners isn’t much different today, though. I’m married to the person I started dating a week after I turned 19.

Anyway, apart from an unwelcome cameo in the first book, I enjoyed this mildly entertaining set of novels about a recently deceased aunt who leads her niece on a European adventure through a series of letters. It was a nice summer read that doesn’t fire up too many brain cells (in other words, it’s a vacation). That said, it did get me thinking about two articles I read earlier this year:

  1. Honoring the Childfree Auntie (Ms. blog)

The nicest part about the Little Blue Envelope series is that it features a close relationship between an aunt and her niece, a relationship I rarely come across in fiction, but one that my children are lucky enough to have in real life with my sisters (one who has a child of her own and one who doesn’t). Research shows that my children are among many who benefit from these types of relationships:

A survey of 1,000 non-mothers inspired by Savvy Auntie Melanie Notkin found that children play an active role in the lives of 80 percent of women who don’t have children of their own. Another study found that it’s common for aunts to spend money on the children in their lives and assist kids’ parents financially.

For more information, see the link in the heading. These women certainly deserve our gratitude. [Thanks, sisters! Love you.]

  1. The Fading of the Green: Fewer Americans Identify as Irish (Pew Research Center)

In the second book in the series, The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of Ginny’s poor romantic options cannot believe she doesn’t know what a bodhrán is, insisting, “Come on. You knew that. You’re Irish. All Americans are Irish.”

Obviously, all Americans are not of Irish descent, and I’m sure this character knows that. He’s just being annoying, as is his way. However, his statement reminded me of a Pew study that shows that the percentage of Americans who trace their ancestry to Ireland is slowly declining.

I look South Asian, thanks to my Sri Lankan mom, but I have Irish ancestry on my Dad’s side. That’s how my daughters have red hair, just like Anusha, the star of our Anne of Green Gables-inspired novel, Anusha of Prospect Corner.

An Unwelcome Cameo in My Comfort Reading

I picked up Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, a young adult novel published in 2005, because it looked like a relatively light read at a time when I want my reading to counter the overwhelming sense of doom I feel every time I think about reality. 2017 blows, a virtually ubiquitous feeling the publishing industry is trying to capitalize off of by churning out “Up Lit.” According to The Guardian:

In contrast with the “grip lit” thrillers that were the market leaders until recently, more and more bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood. And an appetite for everyday heroism, human connection and love – rather than romance – is expected to be keeping booksellers and publishers uplifted, too.

Johnson’s novel isn’t a new publication, but I’d say it’s the kind of upbeat read many of us are looking for these days. It takes grim circumstances, the recent death of 17-year-old Ginny Blackstone’s aunt, and turns it into a mildly entertaining story that takes our main character from the United States to several European countries.

The novel starts with a letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, asking to play one final game, a scavenger hunt. So far, so good.

However, a few pages later, in a section about Aunt Peg’s background, this happens:

[Aunt Peg] answered phones as a temp at Trump headquarters until she happened to take a call from Donald himself. She thought it was one of her actor friends pretending to be Donald Trump–so she immediately launched into a tirade on ‘scumbag capitalists with bad toupees.’

I read fiction to escape from this man. What the hell is he doing in this book? I don’t want to see any references to him, not even negative ones, in my comfort reading.

But I continued to read the book, doing by my best to ignore a later reference to someone eating steak with ketchup, an unusual combination that just happens to be Trump’s favorite meal.

Overall, I enjoyed 13 Little Blue Envelopes for its scenery, the descriptions of each of the places Ginny visits. For example:

Travestere couldn’t be a real place. It looked like Disney had attacked a corner of Rome with leftover pastel paint and created the coziest, most picturesque neighborhood ever. It seemed to consist entirely of nooks. There were shutters on the windows, overflowing window boxes, hand-lettered signs that were fading perfectly. There were wash lines hung from building to building, draped with white sheets and shirts. All around her were people with cameras, photographing the wash.

Ginny would never have seen Travestere if it weren’t for Aunt Peg’s decision to coax her out of her shell. Ginny doesn’t have much of a personality. It’s her aunt who fuels this story by controlling her niece’s life for a couple of weeks from beyond the grave. At times, I found myself irritated by Aunt Peg’s demands, particularly the ones that placed Ginny in unsafe situations, but I tried not to dwell on it too much. I don’t want to dwell on anything too much these days. That’s the only way to get through the next few years.