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. 🙂

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:

“Lost Cause” Children’s Literature: What Can We Do About It?

Author Pat Conroy, who passed away in 2016, wrote in his preface to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind that he absorbed “his first lessons in the authority of fiction” from the novel, which his mother read aloud to him when he was only five-years-old. He explained:

When my mother described the reaction of the city to the publication of this book, it was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world. It certainly changed my mother and the life she was meant to lead forever.

Fiction is a powerful messenger, but not necessarily an “authority” worth believing. As I wrote in Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?:

Full of racial slurs and stereotypes, [Gone With the Wind] perpetuates myths about the South. In Margaret Mitchell’s fictional version of her homeland, the planters were charming aristocrats, the slaves were stupid and submissive laborers, and the ruthless “Yankee invaders” ruined everything.

[…]

Gone with the Wind espouses romantic notions of the Old South that hide the brutal truth about slavery and those who wanted to maintain it.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it. So did my husband. We understood its context, and we saw it as fiction about the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, not history. Knowing my children did not yet have the background to understand it, I told my twins not to read Gone With the Wind until they’re older and then I swiftly buried it on my e-reader. They share an account with me and have a tendency to read anything they have access to, including the “boring” U. S. Supreme Court cases I send to my e-reader. (See Are You In Need of a Smile?).

Little did I know that they would soon read a children’s book espousing a sanitized version of the same mythology. A few months into second grade, my then-seven-year-olds borrowed Willie McLean and the Civil War Surrender by Candice Ransom from the school library.

Published in 2005 and intended for elementary-age children, this historical fiction focuses on the Confederacy’s surrender at the McLean House in April 1865, told from the perspective of 11-year-old Willie McLean. The story begins with an Author’s Note that says:

In 1861, America was a divided country. White farmers in the South grew cotton and other crops, using the labor of African American slaves. Others in the South also had slaves. Many Northerners felt that slavery was wrong. The two sides could not agree. The Southern states left the United States, and the Civil War began.

[…]

Willie McLean was eleven years old in 1865. The McLeans never wrote down what happened that fateful April day [of the Confederate surrender], but we know that Willie McLean was present. This is his story, as it might have happened.

The only mention in this book of slavery is in that first paragraph, and it’s a pretty bland description of a vicious, race-based system of forced labor. What does it even mean that “Others in the South also had slaves”? What follows in the rest of the story is a sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy that lionizes Robert E. Lee. The meager Author’s Note does little to counteract Ransom’s portrayal of the Confederate Army as a noble force protecting their way of life from Northern “invaders.”

My children liked the story about Willie and his sister, but found the Civil War backdrop confusing. Thankfully, they brought it to my attention. This wasn’t the first time we’ve talked to our children about controversial historical moments and complicated historical figures–see Arrrr, Matey! Is That George Washington?–but it was one of our earlier conversations with our twins about slavery and the Civil War.

Since then, this subject has come up several times, most recently over the last two weeks as we’ve watched the controversy over monuments that honor the same Confederate myths we see in Gone With the Wind and Willie McLean and the Civil War Surrender. These monuments, the majority of which were erected long after the end of the Civil War, represent a flawed version of history and serve no purpose other than to promote white supremacy and to suggest to racial and ethnic minorities that we are unwelcome.

As an increasing number of these monuments come down, what should happen to children’s books that espouse the same harmful myths? Should they be removed from library shelves, such as the one at my children’s public school?

It’s a challenging issue. Unlike a statue of Robert E. Lee at the center of a public park or in front of a courthouse, a pro-Confederate book’s presence on the shelves among many books in a library isn’t necessarily a celebration of those ideas, and children may have a First Amendment right to access it, as contentious as it may be.

As our Supreme Court said in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 863, 872 (1982):

The Court has long recognized that local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs…, [but] local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

But Pico is an old case, and merely a plurality decision (which means that a majority of the court–at least five justices–couldn’t agree on it).

In a more recent case, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which includes the federal courts of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, decided that a school district’s decision to remove a purportedly non-fiction book does not violate the First Amendment rights of their students when the removal is due to “factual inaccuracies” in the book. They said:

[T]he First Amendment does not forbid a school board from removing a book because it contains factual inaccuracies, whether they be of commission or omission. There is no constitutional right to have books containing misstatements of objective facts shelved in a school library.

ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 557 F.3d 1177 (11th Cir. 2009). They even went so far as to suggest that a school district may lawfully remove a book about the antebellum South that “neglect[s] to mention anything about slavery and the millions of human beings who lived and died in bondage.” Id. at 1223-24.

What about a children’s book that mentions something about slavery, but only briefly and blandly? What if this book is purportedly fiction, but supposedly based on historical fact?

I assume that fiction has more leeway to deviate from historical fact than non-fiction does–it is, after all, fiction–but let’s not forget Pat Conroy’s observation about its “authority.” Fiction is powerful, whether it should be or not, and Willie McLean and the Civil War Surrender left my then-seven-year-old children with the impression that the Confederacy was more noble than it really was. A stronger Author’s Note–one that offered genuine background on what the South was fighting for–would have helped contextualize the strictly Confederate viewpoint it otherwise presented.

That said, I’m not inclined to ask a public school library to remove a book like this from its shelves (and risk being sued). My preference is to discuss controversial books with my kids instead, helping them to develop the critical thinking skills they need to see books that romanticize the Confederacy for what they really are.

 

Whales: Reality Versus Fiction

In Following Papa’s Song, by Gianna Marino, a curious whale calf named Little Blue prepares to migrate. “It is time?” Little Blue wonders. “Listen for the other whales,” Papa explains. “When you hear their call, we’ll know it’s time to go.” Later in the story, Little Blue wants to know about Papa’s call, asking, “When I am big, Papa, will I still hear your song?”

Papa replies: “Yes, Little Blue. If you listen closely, you will always hear my song.”

I choked up a little as I read that line to my six-year-old daughter, who is growing up so fast, as children always do, it seems.

Following Papa’s Song is a beautiful and poignant picture book that captures a special relationship between a father and his child. I wish I could leave it at that, but facts have an awful way of infecting my enjoyment of fiction, and as I was reading this book to my daughter, I kept thinking: Shouldn’t Papa really be Mama?

To find out, I read a couple of studies on baleen whales (which include blue whales). I learned that my hunch is probably right, but the answer might not be so simple. It turns out that we don’t know that much about the social dynamics, reproduction, or parenting of blue whales because their “oceanic tendencies and low numbers” make it difficult to study them (Lomac-MacNair & Smultea 2016). What we do know is that:

  • They tend to be solitary creatures, though they do sometimes form small groups;
  • We have only observed males produce songs; and
  • We have only observed females parenting calves.

So, in real life, a blue whale calf would probably have a relationship with their mother, not their father. However, what I’m wondering about now is how researchers identify the sex of the whale they’re observing.

I’m not a marine biologist, so perhaps this is a silly question, but it’s what came to mind as I read a couple of studies on the subject. A large portion of the information we know about whales seems to come from the gruesome whaling industry. I’m not sure what information they gathered, but they may have noted that whales killed with calves were typically female, a conclusion that is consistent with human gender stereotypes. Whatever the reason, modern observational research seems to assume that whenever two blue whales are together, and one is larger than the other, they are a mother-calf pair.

For example, in Reproductive Parameters of Eastern North Pacific Blue Whales Balaeonoptera musculus (linked below), the researchers explained their methodology like this:

Blue whales were individually identified using photos of the flanks and backs of both sides. Females were identified as cows (i.e. lactating) due to the presence of a calf, which in turn was identified by its relatively small size (half the size) and positioning in synchronous swimming pattern while accompanying the female during several consecutive surfacing sequences in the same sighting over approximately an hour.

That sounds reasonable. However, it’s worth noting that researchers in another study I read, one on humpback whales (also baleen whales), were surprised to learn that two of the whales they identified as female because they appeared to be with calves turned out to be genetically male (amusingly, the researchers punctuated this finding with an exclamation point!). (Barendse et al. 2013).

So, maybe a blue whale calf could follow their papa’s song? It doesn’t seem likely, but who knows what we’ll learn about this magnificent species in the future.

PS. My kids have been interested in blue whales ever since they saw the preserved blue whale heart in Toronto earlier this summer (they went with my sister and my Dad, who is standing with them in the picture). The heart is from a whale carcass that washed ashore in Newfoundland in 2014. To learn more about this exhibit, see Blue Whale (Royal Ontario Museum)  & The Painstaking Process of Preserving a 400-Pound Blue Whale Heart.

________________

Sources:

Barendse et al (2013) Mother Knows Best: Occurrence and Associations of Resighted Humpback Whales Suggest Maternally Derived Fidelity to a Southern Hemisphere Coastal Feeding Ground, PLOS ONE, available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3857176/pdf/pone.0081238.pdf

Lomac-MacNair & Smultea (2016), Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) Behavior and Group Dynamics as Observed from an Aircraft off Southern California,  ANIMAL BEHAVIOR & COGNITION, available at: http://animalbehaviorandcognition.org/uploads/journals/9/01.Feb2016-Lomac&Smultea-final.443.del.pdf

MacDonald et al (2006), Biogeographic Characterisation of Blue Whale Song Worldwide: Using Song to Identify Populations, J. CETACEAN RES. MANAGE. 8(1): 55-65, available at: http://cetus.ucsd.edu/Publications/Publications/McDonaldJCRM2006.pdf

Sears et al (2013), Reproductive Parameters of Eastern North Pacific Blue Whales Balaeonoptera musculus, ENDANG SPECIES RES 22:23-31, available at: http://www.int-res.com/articles/esr2014/22/n022p023.pdf