A #KidLit Book That Exhibits Everything I Dislike In Literature (But My Kid Loved It)

Recently, my six-year-old left the library with two thick books in her little hands: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls and its sequel, The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed, both written by Holly Grant, illustrated by Josie Portillo, and published by Random House Children’s Books. These novels feature a child named Anastasia McCrumpet who falls into the clutches of a pair of mysterious, silver-toothed “great-aunts” who live in a former Victorian psychiatric institution.

My daughter can read on her own, but she’s not quite able to read middle grade books, so I read the first in this series out loud to her.

Ugh.

It was like reading a 294-page tongue-twister thanks to the author’s penchant for overstuffed sentences, alliteration, and arcane vocabulary. Here’s a random selection (similar examples abound on virtually every page):

(1) Anastasia soon discovered that every day at St. Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather. Standing outside one week later, after seven days of rain and fog, she blinked through the twilit mizzle at the moss fuzzing the asylum bog. (page 59)

(2) Because would-be sickie Mrs. McCrumpet had consulted every expert medic and smooth-talking quack in Mooselick, Anastasia was familiar with many pills and syrups and cure-alls. For example, she knew that waving a bottle of smelling salts beneath someone’s snoot was supposed to jozzle them awake. (page 94)

This wasn’t a quick read, but I powered through it because my daughter wanted to find out who Anastasia’s “great-aunts” really were and why they took her to St. Agony’s. Honestly, I got sucked into the story too, enough to convince me to keep reading even though the novel contained many of my literary pet-peeves, including (but not limited to):

  • Coincidences that resolve the conflict.

Basically, a couple of half-baked characters show up near the end, save the day with random powers, and then turn out to be more than merely superheroes. Some could argue that there are causal connections between these events, but they are weak at best. These characters come out of the blue.

  • Unnecessary negative emphasis on physical characteristics.

How do you know who a villain is? By their unibrow, and Anastasia even refers to an unsavory character as “The Monobrow” instead of using her name.

I also didn’t like certain descriptions in the novel, such as this one, which presents larger body-types in an unfavorable manner for comedic effect:

From somewhere in the house crooned a noise like EEEEEEEE-ooooooooooaaaa. Of course, it was just St. Agony’s settling into its foundations, like a lady with a large rump trying to squeeze into her bikini bottoms. (page 52)

I found myself cringing several times while reading this book.

  • No diversity.

All of the characters in this 2015 book are white. Penguin Random House should try harder to offer alternatives to the homogeneously white narratives that already flood the market. They should publish books that (1) reflect the identities of readers from non-white backgrounds, and (2) introduce readers from racially homogenous families and communities to fictional friends from diverse backgrounds. Fictional friends are no substitute for real-life experiences, but it’s a start.

Conclusion:

I used this book as tool to teach my daughter about plot structure, kindness/acceptance, and the importance of diversity in literature. Our discussions were interesting, and I’m happy to report that my commentary did not ruin her enjoyment of the story. We will read the second book of the series together–we already have it from the library–but it’s too soon for me to commit to the third book, which is scheduled for release next month (August 2017).  My daughter might have to read that one on her own. She is much closer in age to its intended audience than I am anyway.

At the risk of “spoiling” one small piece of the plot, here’s what my six-year-old had to say about The League of Beastly Dreadfuls:

“It’s a good book because I liked it. It shows you how important librarians are.”

Yes, it does. I have nothing to add about the lovely librarian in the story, but when it comes to real-life librarians, we are certainly grateful. Thanks to them, my daughter has access to books I wouldn’t necessarily choose for her, and I think that’s a good thing.

House Arrest: An American Story

 

In House Arrest, by K. A. Holt, twelve-year-old Timothy Davidson faces the consequences of stealing a wallet to pay for his baby brother’s medicine, which costs $1,445.32 for one month. Whatever insurance Timothy’s family has — there are references to “the state” paying for some medical services  — it does not cover all of this child’s serious medical needs. The family is desperate, not that Timothy’s mother wants to admit it. “She never wants to ask for help,” Timothy explains.

Written in verse, the novel consists of Timothy’s entries into a journal the juvenile court requires him to keep during his house arrest. It’s a middle grade book, ideal for children around Timothy’s age, but its content also appeals to adults. The anguish Timothy’s family feels over Levi’s medical challenges is vivid and relatable, probably because the novel is drawn at least in part from the author’s experience.

I read the novel in one sitting with a lump in my throat and tears stinging at the corners of my eyes because this story stirred memories of my twins’ fragile beginnings. My daughters did not have Levi’s diagnosis, but they received expensive medical care and faced heart-wrenching mortality and morbidity odds.

“So many things for such a little baby,” Timothy recalls a nurse saying about the child’s medical supplies. I remember hearing similar words when my tiny former-26 weekers came home after 78 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with oxygen tanks as big as I am and apnea monitors that had a tendency to go off whenever we were in elevators.

One of my former 26-weekers, who is now 9-years-old, read House Arrest after I did. She teared up too, but for different reasons. She couldn’t understand why Timothy’s family couldn’t afford the medical care Levi needed. There’s no good explanation for why anyone in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, should struggle to pay for medically necessary care (or forgo it altogether).

Our system of private and public insurance leaves too many families without the coverage they need — a reality that may get far worse thanks to Congress. In many cases, families have to rely on the kindness of acquaintances to survive.

These days, in a time of rising medical costs and inadequate government support, there is nothing more American than asking for help to pay for medical expenses on crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe. Sadly, though, research has shown that the majority of these campaigns do not reach their financial targets. People with greater means, such as having extensive social networks, technological skills, and higher education levels, are more likely to succeed, and these are not necessarily the people with the greatest needs.

Rest assured, though, House Arrest portrays a more optimistic outcome for Timothy’s family. That’s part of what makes it such a satisfying novel.

The Importance of a Well-Packed Knapsack #KidLit #Traveling

If there’s one thing we learn from Elmer Elevator in My Father’s Dragon (1948), a children’s novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett, it’s the importance of a well-packed knapsack. In fact, for a recent trip, my youngest daughter advised me to take what Elmer packed for his travels, including:

  • Chewing gum
  • Two dozen pink lollipops
  • A package of rubber bands
  • Black rubber boots
  • A compass
  • A toothbrush
  • A tube of toothpaste
  • Six magnifying glasses
  • A very sharp jackknife
  • A comb and a hairbrush
  • Seven hair ribbons of different colors
  • An empty grain bag with a label saying “Cranberry”
  • Some clean clothes; and
  • Food

It’s not a bad list, I guess, except for the jackknife, which I have no reason to carry and could result in an enormous headache for me if I tried to get it through airport security. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, prohibits a long list of items in carry-on luggage, including knives. The prohibition on sharp knives in carry-on luggage may seem obvious, but it’s a relatively new ban. Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, private companies were responsible for airport screening, and the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines permitted passengers to carry blades up to four inches long onto planes (See the 9/11 Commission Report, page 84; PDF).

Since 9/11, for many of us, airport screening has become increasingly inconvenient and invasive. When I was regularly traveling between Philadelphia and Boston for law school, I was singled out for pat-down searches almost every time I flew. I switched to traveling by train, where I’ve also been searched, but not as invasively. More recently, my experiences with airport security haven’t been too bad, but that could be because I pack very lightly. I pay close attention to the TSA list of prohibited items, and I try not to fill my carry-on bag, if I take one at all.

Does it help? I have no idea, but perhaps it makes it easier for screeners to identify items by X-ray without having to search my bag manually, exposing my personal belongings to the world. The increased density of carry-on luggage–a byproduct of the imposition of higher fees for checked luggage–is an issue DHS Secretary John Kelly raised in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News while discussing potential TSA policy changes.

One of those changes would target a demographic to which most, if not all, of us belong (if you’re reading this blog): Readers.

In May, the TSA required passengers at a small number of airports to remove books from their carry-on luggage to be X-rayed, apparently to find thin, flat explosives hidden between the pages. This search might not seem like a big deal if you’re reading the newest James Patterson available at every airport or a classic Jane Austen, whose books I often carry with me. But what if you’re reading books about sensitive topics, such as books about surviving sexual abuse? What if you’re reading books in Arabic or books that oppose Donald Trump? Considering the TSA has previously detained a student (who was then arrested) because he had English-Arabic flashcards, I wouldn’t want to encourage them to routinely assess passengers’ reading material.

Thankfully, the TSA has decided against implementing this policy nationwide at this time (see the ACLU’s update here). I hope it stays that way.

________________________________________________

*Thanks to @MyBookStrings for recommending Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon, the first of which is My Father’s Dragon. We really enjoyed this book.

*The image is a portion of the cover of the 50th Anniversary edition of Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon (Random House).

We March(ed)

A recent addition to my children’s bookshelves is Shane W. Evans’s We March, a sparsely worded but powerful picture book about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On August 28, 1963, more than a quarter of a million people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. implored the American people to allow freedom to ring throughout the country. (For the full text of Dr. King’s speech, see here – PDF).

The 1963 March on Washington was an important moment of the Civil Rights Movement that ushered in major legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws have indelibly improved our country for millions of Americans, despite the backlash that continues to hamper its enforcement today, more than half a century later. (See my comments on Lillian’s Right to Vote, a picture book by Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans).

We March is an ideal book for early readers like my six-year-old daughter, who proudly reads the handful of words on each page and then focuses on the bold illustrations. The book reminds her of when she marched in our local Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Since then, we’ve participated in a handful of public demonstrations, but not many, and not in a while. I still make phone calls to my elected representatives, but not as many as I did in the early days of Trump’s Administration. It’s difficult to maintain the stamina I had in the first few weeks—it’s emotionally and physically exhausting—but that doesn’t mean I’ve started to accept this man as President or that I’ve started to tolerate the modern Republican Party’s heartless agenda on the state or national levels.

With every attempt to suppress voters (such as Ohio’s effort before the U.S. Supreme Court), every reiteration of Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim Travel Ban, every mean-spirited version of TrumpCare (the ACHA or the BCRA), every attempt to strip our right to enforce civil rights laws through litigation (Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s HR 985), and every roll back of our environmental protection policies, my disdain for Donald Trump and the GOP at every level of government intensifies. With every acquittal or mistrial of police officers who kill men for being black and mistrial of men who drug women to sexually assault them, my disillusionment with our system deepens.

These are the issues I think about when I vote for lawmakers or judges. These are the issues I think about every day, whenever I have a moment free of life’s obligations, such as when I’m writing or gardening.

Gardening is not a distraction from the news. It’s a reaction to it. It’s an act of resistance my daughters dreamed up in the dark days after Trump’s electoral victory, when they wanted to know what two third graders and a kindergartener could do in response to Trump’s unconscionable win. One of their fears was about Trump’s impact on the environment, so we planned a butterfly garden, expanding upon two beds we started in 2015 by focusing on planting pollinator-friendly flowers.

The garden is rejuvenating and exciting, but it’s a work-in-progress, as all gardens are. We have some annuals, like zinnias, but most of our plants are young perennials that need a few more years to reach their full potential. Our monardas, for example, are still small and lonely, “bee balms” that bees don’t seem to like as much as I thought they would. But we’ll see what happens as the plants grow.

Gardens are a practice in patience. Change takes time, a lesson I need to remember when I look at our bleak political landscape.

 

*Top to Bottom: Lavender & sedum, Monarda, Agastache/Hyssop, Zinnia, & Milkweed

 

 

Will The Supreme Court Allow States To Penalize Americans Who Don’t Vote?

About 100 million eligible voters chose not to vote — or were unable to — in the November 2016 presidential election. That’s more individuals than the number of people who cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton, the winner of the popular vote, or for Donald Trump, the winner of the White House.

As Donald Trump reminds us daily (usually through Twitter), we are all punished when such a substantial portion of the population does not participate in voting, the corner-stone of our democracy.

A good portion of these non-voters have never been registered, while others managed to register but have become inactive voters. For those in the latter category living in Ohio (and states with similar laws), the state removes them from the roll entirely if they are inactive for two years, then fail to respond to a letter, and then don’t vote within the next four years.

This purging process is the focus of a voting rights case called Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, et al, which the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear. They will address whether federal law prohibits Ohio from penalizing its citizens for not voting over a six-year-period by removing them from the voter rolls.

The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit sided with the voting rights advocates who sued Ohio over this process. Will the Supreme Court come to a different conclusion? I hope not.

I do not see how the federal laws at issue in this case — the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) — permit states to remove infrequent voters from the voting roll without a better indication that they are ineligible, such as change of address information from the postal service. Section 20507(b)(2) of the NVRA states:

Any State program or activity to protect the integrity of the electoral process by ensuring the maintenance of an accurate and current voter registration roll… shall not result in the removal of any person from the official list of voters in an election for Federal office by reason of the person’s failure to vote.

If there’s evidence the person has moved, then the state may send that person a letter, and finally remove them from the rolls if they don’t respond to the letter and don’t vote within the next four years. Section 20507(c)-(d). HAVA did not alter this process, saying, “nothing in [HAVA] may be construed to authorize or require conduct prohibited under [the NVRA], or to supersede, restrict, or limit the application of [the NVRA.].” 52 U.S.C. 21145(a).

So, based on my reading of these laws, the state needs more than the mere fact that someone didn’t take an affirmative step to maintain their right to vote either by responding to a letter (how many letters have you forgotten to reply to?) or voting within a certain period of time (four years after the letter, six years total).

Six years of non-voting may seem like a long time, but not to me, not when I look at my six-year-old daughter and think about how fast she’s growing up. It also doesn’t seem like a long time when I think about how life’s disturbances can be a challenge to voting for many people, especially when they either don’t know much or don’t care for the candidates running in any particular race.

Importantly, the right to vote encompasses the right not to vote. So, then, why would we penalize Americans who didn’t do it by making it harder for them to ever do it? Taking a person off the roll, forcing them to re-register, is a barrier to voting.

Ohio claims that it must have a way of removing infrequent voters from the rolls to maintain the “integrity of the electoral process,” which is often code for rooting out theoretical voter fraud in a way that benefits a particular party. As I wrote in my comments on this blog about Ari Berman’s book, Give Us the Ballot:

Berman notes that when the Bush Administration made voter fraud the focus of a Justice Department initiative, the probe ‘resulted in only eighty-six convictions out of three hundred million votes cast’ between 2002 and 2007.

Meanwhile, to reduce the virtually non-existent problem of voter fraud, the state of Ohio is willing to take away the voting rights of thousands of its citizens. In the 2016 Presidential election alone — a single election — 7,515 people voted (because of a court order in this case) who would not have been permitted to vote at all under Ohio’s purging process.

My state, Pennsylvania, may employ a similar process targeting infrequent voters. In my precinct, where I am the Judge of Elections, it’s my job to tell hopeful voters that their names do not appear on our rolls. On November 8, 2016, based on my phone records, I spent more than three hours of my time trying to track down where people were registered. Sometimes, it’s another precinct, another ward, or another county; other times, they are registered nowhere at all, despite their clear memory of having voted before. They can file a provisional ballot, which may or may not be counted, but they cannot go into the booth. They walk away with a voter registration application (to get the chance to vote in the future) and the feeling that the state took away their right to vote.

Ohio wants as many people as possible to feel that way. The process they are fighting for in the Husted case is a voter suppression scheme.

In Ohio’s brief to the Supreme Court, on pages 5-6, state Attorney General Michael Dewine and his colleagues said:

It is a tragic fact of history that, before 1965, some States enacted registration rules to “deny registration” to African Americans rather than ensure fair elections. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to remedy this “extraordinary’ problem.”

Those quotes around “deny registration” and “extraordinary” in Ohio’s brief may as well be sneer quotes considering how disingenuous the state’s position is. It is not merely a tragic fact of history that some states enact rules to deny registration to individuals they believe will not vote for the party in control of those rules. Ohio is fighting for the ability to do that right now.

Lillian’s Right to Vote, a children’s book authored by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, poignantly displays the history of the voting rights struggle for racial minorities and women in the United States. It ends with a sobering note that discusses the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and leaves readers with a call to action: “The right to vote still needs protection. Will a new generation rise and continue this fight?”

The answer must be yes.

I am thankful for organizations like the ACLU and Demos, which together filed the lawsuit against Ohio. I hope the Supreme Court does not undo their hard work.

____________________

*To read the briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in this case, go to SCOTUSblog.

Separate Is Never Equal

Separate Is Never Equal, a children’s book authored and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh, begins:

Sylvia had on her black shoes. They were shiny-new. Her hair was perfectly parted in two long trenzas. It was her first day at the Westminster school. The halls were crowded with students. She was looking for her locker when a young white boy pointed at her and yelled, “Go back to the Mexican school! You don’t belong here!”

Sylvia does not want to return to the Westminster school until her mother reminds her of their family’s struggle to send her there.

Separate Is Never Equal is a retelling of that struggle, based on the real-life lawsuit the Mendez and other families filed against their segregated school districts in California in the 1940s. That case, Mendez v. Westminster School District (1946), affirmed by the 9th Circuit (1947), required four districts in California to admit children of Mexican descent to white schools. Reaching this conclusion, Judge McCormick wrote in the District Court opinion:

A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality.  It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage… the commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the school children which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals.

64 F. Supp. 544, 549.

This case ultimately led to state legislation, signed by then-governor Earl Warren, that racially desegregated districts across California. Mendez was an important predecessor to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court opinion authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren that made it clear that race-based segregation laws and policies violate the United States Constitution.

These court cases were vital to opening up educational opportunities for minority students in the United States, but the book’s opening scene showing Sylvia in tears illustrates a limitation of litigation. The Mendez court changed the official policy of the school district, but not the biased culture that created that policy. Sylvia, however, perseveres in this hostile environment, ultimately forging friendships with children of different backgrounds, relationships I hope contributed to a cultural shift that embraces equality. It’s the happy ending she and all children deserve.

Sadly, though, for far too many of our children today, school remains a racially isolated experience, and majority-minority districts often lack the resources that majority-white districts typically have. As the author’s note explains at the end of the book, citing a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, “a great deal of inequality–and a kind of unofficial segregation–still exists today.”

More than six decades after Brown and seven after Mendez, the need for equal educational opportunities and intercultural understanding remains. I wish these goals were achievable by court decree, but it clearly takes more than that.

My family lives in a racially diverse area, and my children attend a majority-minority public school in the same district I attended as a child (which was diverse back then but probably not majority-minority). Today, the school district is 53% black, 35% white, under 10% Asian, under 5% Latino, and 1% “other races” (and I have no idea how the district categorizes racially mixed children).

We returned to this community because of its diversity, but, frustratingly, it’s turned out to be far from integrated. Many white families here tout the diversity of our community but send their children to predominantly white private schools.  Meanwhile, the well-funded public schools appear racially segregated in activities and academics, there’s a persistent achievement gap with black students at the bottom, and a handful of incidents since the 2016 election suggest that some faculty and staff need cultural and anti-bias training. The district, led by a diverse group of administrators, recognizes these problems, but we are far from solving them.

I wasn’t expecting my community to be a utopia, but I was hoping for something better than this. Unfortunately, what we have here may be as good as it gets in a country where people lack the personal and political will to do better. At least my district is trying.