The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher #MiddleGrade #KidLit

Recently, my family met the Fletchers, the fictional stars of Dana Alison Levy’s middle grade novel, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I read aloud to my daughters as we waited for the school bus. The Fletcher family consists of two dads, Jason and Tom, and four boys of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds named Sam, Jax, Eli, and Frog (short for Bull Frog, AKA Jeremiah). The Fletchers are different from my family in some ways, but we can relate to many of their daily triumphs and tribulations, such as dealing with awkward questions and rude stares.

Here’s an example from Chapter Five:

In the seats, dozens of grown-ups stared blankly at the Fletchers….

Papa stepped forward, smiling. “I’m Jason Fletcher—please call me Jason. And this is my husband, Tom Anderson.”

Dad reached out his hand, also smiling. They had been through this many times, Eli knew… [He] stared at his spotless desk, his face burning. He wasn’t embarrassed about his family—it wasn’t that. It was just… there were so many of them. And so many boys. He knew the questions were coming.

[…]

“Are those guys all your brothers? How old are they?” Griffin said. […] “You guys don’t look anything alike.”

[…]

“We’re all adopted,” Eli said, edging toward Dad, who was reading the compositions taped to the wall. Eli hoped that the questions would stop now. But before he walked away, he heard Mika say, in a loud whisper, “Why do they have two dads? Don’t they have a mom?”

It was apparently loud enough for Frog to hear too, and before Eli could answer, Frog spoke up. “Of course we had moms! Don’t you even know how babies are made? It takes a man and a woman, and the egg meets the—”

Our family’s situation is different, but we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of insensitive interrogations because some people don’t understand how our mixed-race family “belongs” together, a topic I explored with my twins in our middle grade novel, Anusha of Prospect Corner.

Like 6-year-old Frog Fletcher, who responds to Mika’s question with a reproductive biology lesson, our Sri Lankan-American Anusha Smyth addresses the ignorance she encounters about where her red hair “comes from” with a science-based answer, a similarity my twins noted as we read Chapter Five together.

We spent time discussing the chapter, in part because it provided a piece of evidence that contributed to my kids’ understanding of the time period of the book. They had been confused about the time period because one of the Fletcher boys had considered taking a paper-route, an old-fashioned job my kids know of only from stories about their Granddad’s childhood.

When my girls learned that Tom is Jason’s husband, my daughter said: “Oh, so they’re married. Then it takes place now because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal until recently.”**

“Sort of,” I replied, noting that the story seems to take place in Massachusetts, where marriage equality became the law well over a decade ago as a result of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (2003). That decision came down from the Massachusetts Supreme Court at the end of my first semester of law school. I was in Massachusetts at the time, and I wondered how long it would take for marriage equality to reach the rest of the country.

Twelve years later, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared that United States Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry. 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).

There are some people in our country — such as those responsible for the 2016 Republican Party platform — who want to turn the clock back to a time when real families like the fictional Fletchers had little or no legal protection for their love of each other, but judging from my children’s positive reaction to The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, I think those people are fighting a losing battle. My kids accept the Fletchers for what they really are: a fun family worth reading about. They and other members of their generation are our future, not those people who want to reinstate the past.

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*We read this book after it was recommended by @raincityjane @thelogonauts on the #diversekidlit twitter chat (for a recap, see here: http://www.thelogonauts.com/2017/04/chat.html)

**A later reference to Minecraft helped us narrow the time period to “pretty much now.”

A Shared Superpower & Another Anne of Green Gables

One of my daughters shares more than her red hair and Sri Lankan-American background with the main character of Anusha of Prospect Corner. They share a “superpower” too. Anusha is uncommonly good at finding four-leaf clovers, and yesterday, my daughter showed she is also quite good at finding them. We stuck her clovers in a copy of Anusha, a middle grade novel we wrote together:

Anusha of Prospect Corner is a multicultural take on L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I love adaptations of classics, both in written form and on the screen, and I am looking forward to watching the new retelling that will debut on Netflix in the United States on May 12th. Anne is already airing in Canada, which gave us L. M. Montgomery and her timeless creations in the first place.

This new adaptation focuses on some of the darker aspects of Anne Shirley’s life. In a recent interview on Smithsonian.com, Moira Walley-Beckett, the show’s producer and writer, said:

I guess I don’t really agree that it’s a darker take. I think that it’s a deep, honest take. All of Anne’s backstory is in the book. She’s had a terrible early life. She talks about it in exposition, and I just took us there dramatically.

Yes, Anne’s early life was bleak. When I read the book with my daughters, before we wrote Anusha of Prospect Corner together, they teared up at these words:

Marilla asked no more questions. Anne gave herself up to a silent rapture over the shore road and Marilla guided the sorrel abstractedly while she pondered deeply. Pity was stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had—a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth.

We will watch Anne together next month.  I wonder how my children will react to seeing the story behind these lines transferred to the screen.

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PS. If you’d like to see a picture of a six-leaf clover I found last summer, see A Review of Anusha of Prospect Corner (scroll to the bottom).

On Challenging LGBTQ #DiverseKidLit

While many of us demand that the publishing industry give us books that reflect our diverse experiences, there are others out there in favor of the opposite: the production and promotion of only white, heteronormative, cisgender, ableist stories. Last year, those people demanded that libraries and schools in their communities ban several books that feature LGBTQ themes.

The top five (of the ten) most challenged books on the American Library Association’s 2016 list are:

  • This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki & illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
  • Drama by Raina Telgemeier
  • George by Alex Gino
  • I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel & Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
  • Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

All of these books include LGBTQ characters and themes.

To people with the audacity to challenge these books, it’s not enough to prohibit their own children from reading them. They feel a need to prevent everyone’s children from reading them too. And for what? To protect impressionable youth? Books like Alex Gino’s George, which features a transgender child, don’t “brainwash” children into being anything other than who those children already are. As I’ve said several times before, initially in Please Stop Parenting My Children (2013):

All I can say to [book challengers] 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.

But I’m not going to waste my time arguing with those people. They’re fighting a losing battle. The more they kick and scream about a book, the more children will want to read it, and my sense is that librarians and the courts will probably protect their access to it (though not all of the time, especially when it comes to school curricula).

Our most recent case on book banning from the U.S. Supreme Court, our highest court, is Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), an old case and a mere plurality opinion (which means fewer than five Justices agreed on it).  For now, though, it is our best indication of where the law stands on the issue. That means that public schools and libraries, to which the First Amendment applies, may not remove books from the shelves “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Pico, 457 U.S. 853 at 872.

The people who challenged George and the other books on that list might not like the ideas contained in those stories, but those “ideas” are fictional depictions of a reality they cannot change or ignore. Diversity exists whether they like it or not, and they can’t hide that fact from their children (or anyone else’s) forever.

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*Thanks to @thelogonauts (of The Logonauts blog), whose tweet inspired this post.

 

Anusha of Prospect Corner #OwnVoices #MiddleGrade

Just a quick note- The ebook version of Anusha of Prospect Corner is on sale today! It’s a multicultural, middle grade novel inspired by our background and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I wrote it with my twins, who had very clear ideas about the ways Anusha’s story needed to be different from Anne’s. (See How I Betrayed My Children (While Writing With Them)). I learned so much about my kids while working on this project with them. It was a wonderful experience.

To meet my co-authors, check out this video:

To read a review of Anusha of Prospect Corner, see The Huntress of Diverse Books (Jan. 22, 2017).

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

Have a great weekend!

More than a “Bathroom Battle”: The Constitutional Rights of Transgender Children at School

evancho

On February 22, 2017, the Justice Department under the Trump Administration made it clear that it did not believe transgender students deserve protection under Title IX (the federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in education). Thankfully, though, Title IX is not the only law that protects students in public schools.* The United States Constitution provides another legal avenue, one that the Western District of Pennsylvania has recently declared is likely to protect transgender students from discriminatory bathroom policies.

On February 27, 2017, District Judge Mark Hornak, an Obama appointee, issued a thorough opinion in Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, ruling in favor of three transgender high school students at a public school (see below for a link to the full opinion). The Court analyzed whether the school district violated federal law when it forced the students to use either single-user bathrooms or common bathrooms matching their assigned sexes (rather than their gender identity).

I’ve written about discriminatory bathroom policies in two previous posts:

In these posts, I highlight how fiction can help us understand the impact of discriminatory bathroom policies on the people they target (something I make an effort to understand as a cisgender person). I focused on a paragraph from Alex Gino’s George, a middle grade novel, that shows some of the harms transgender students experience when schools prohibit them from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity:

[George**] stumbled, sobbing, into the bathroom—the boys’ bathroom. Her lips trembled and salty tears dripped into her mouth. George hated the boys’ bathroom. It was the worst room in the school. She hated the smell of pee and bleach, and she hated the blue tiles on the wall to remind you where you were, as if the urinals didn’t make it obvious enough. The whole room was about being a boy, and when boys were in there, they liked to talk about what was between their legs. George tried never to use it when there were any boys inside. She never drank from the water fountains at school, even if she was thirsty, and some days, she could make it through the school day without having to go once.

The facts underlying the Evancho opinion similarly highlight the harmful impact discriminatory policies have on transgender children at school. As the judge states, “Court cases involve real people and real events,” and so the facts in the opinion reflect the lived experiences of the three students who filed the lawsuit. As the judge recounts, one of these students explained that the exclusionary bathroom policy caused “her serious emotional and other distress, making her feel unsafe, depressed, marginalized and stigmatized…”

Based on the experiences of these three students, and the fact that the school district was unable to support its reasons for implementing the policy, the Court determined that the students would likely succeed on an Equal Protection claim against the school. It applied intermediate scrutiny (meaning that the different treatment between transgender and cisgender students must be supported by “an exceedingly persuasive reason, advance an important governmental interest and have a direct relationship to the important governmental interest furthered by it.”) As a result, the school must allow the plaintiffs to use common restrooms consistent with their gender identities while the lawsuit continues (this is a preliminary injunction).

This is just one federal court of many in this country, but it’s a hopeful sign that perhaps America didn’t completely abandon our Constitutional principles when Donald Trump seized the White House. We shall see.

To read the full opinion, which I highly recommend, please see here (PDF).

____________________________________

*Title IX applies to any educational program that receives federal funding (including both public and private schools), while the Constitution only applies to public entities.

**I inserted “George” at the beginning of the quote because that is the name that appears throughout the paragraph in the novel. However, Melissa is the name the child prefers to use. For more on the recalcitrance of the name “George,” see George or Melissa? It Matters.

Rosy Retrospection & #ReadingEmily

reading-emily-our-busstopbook

It’s been a long time since I last visited Emily Byrd Starr, the main character of L. M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon (1923). Emily isn’t as famous as Anne, the star of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, but she’s every bit as lovable. She’s an imaginative child and an aspiring writer who recognizes and embraces the world around her:

[Emily] loved the spruce barrens, away at the further end of the long, sloping pasture.That was a place where magic was made. She came more fully into her fairy birthright there than in any other place.

Sadly, Emily isn’t lucky enough to stay in this magical place. By chapter three, she loses her beloved father, setting into motion a cascade of tragic events, including the gut-wrenching loss of the yellow account-book into which Emily poured her creative thoughts.

When I signed up to participate in the #ReadingEmily readalong (hosted by Naomi of Consumed by Ink), I remembered the basic outline of Emily’s story, but I didn’t remember the details, and I certainly don’t remember crying over it. But I cried this time.

Am I more sensitive now?

My friend Jaclyn of Covered in Flour (linked below) had a similar experience:

Reading Emily as a child, I was terribly sad for her but didn’t give her father much thought in his own right.  Reading Emily as an adult, I can imagine what he must have felt, knowing that he would have to leave his beloved daughter to fend for herself in the world, that his moments with her were dwindling and that he would not see her grow up and achieve her dreams and fall in love.  (I’m getting weepy again.)

When I was a child, I didn’t have the life experiences to put myself into either Emily’s or her father’s shoes. In our modern society, life expectancy is far longer than it was in Emily’s day. Death felt remote to me as a kid, more so than it does for me now. These days, I worry about the loss of my parents, a loss many of my friends have already faced. I also worry about my children, who were born so early that their mortality was an ever-present fear in the early months of their lives, and that fear has never entirely disappeared. As a result, now that I’m an adult, I identify with ten-year-old Emily more than I did when I was her age.

However, when I look at my 9-year-old twins, with whom I’m #ReadingEmily, I wonder if I’ve misremembered my experience. They found Emily’s trials even more distressing than I did, crying especially hard when Emily’s yellow account-book became a “little heap of white film on the glowing coals.” Of course, these are the same sensitive souls who begged me to make sure that Anusha’s Manoj in Anusha of Prospect Corner, our #OwnVoices homage to Anne of Green Gables, met a different fate from Anne’s Matthew (see How I Betrayed My Kids – While Writing With Them).

Maybe I was the same way when I was their age. Maybe I don’t remember the tears I shed over Emily’s tragic circumstances.

Even when I look back on undeniably tumultuous times in my own life, such as my twins’ 78-day NICU stay, my memories do not fully reflect the reality. Nine years after their hospitalization, I still jump every time they get a cough, remembering the bleating ventilators and pulse oximeters, but most of the time, I only remember the positive parts. As I said a few years ago, when a fellow preemie mom quoted me (under my nickname) in Moving Beyond the Trauma of Preterm Birth:

Honestly, after three years, I have more positive memories of the NICU than negative ones. I was a wreck during our twins’ NICU stay, but I don’t really focus on that when I think back to that time. I miss hearing about every little milestone – every ounce gained, every step lower on the respiratory support, every poopy diaper – and I miss the nurses and doctors who cared for our twins for so long.

L.M. Montgomery understood this memory bias, giving Emily the gift of remembering her final weeks with her father as beautiful when the “pain had gone out of their recollection.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that I remember the magic of Emily’s vibrant world instead of the sadness. That’s just the way memory works.

To find other bloggers who are #ReadingEmily, check out:

  • Naomi at Consumed By Ink (host): “The girl has pluck. It’s easy to see why so many readers move on from their infatuation with Anne and fall in love with Emily.
  • Sarah Emsley: “This month, I read L.M. Montgomery’s 1923 novel Emily of New Moon for the first time in many years, and while I remembered some aspects of Emily’s journey to become a writer—the diary she burns after her aunt reads part of it, the letters she writes to her father after his death, her ambition to become both a poet and a novelist—I had forgotten just how strict her Aunt Elizabeth is, how cruel her teacher is, and how much Emily has to fight to be taken seriously as a person.”
  • Jaclyn at Covered in Flour (also quoted in my post): “And then there are books that are so intrinsically a part of you, books that you have lived in, that you will return to their pages for the rest of your life and even when you’re not in the midst of a re-read, you are carrying their subtle influence with you.  Often, that’s a childhood book – one that was a formative influence on you when you were growing up. Emily of New Moon is that book for me.”

More Than a “Bathroom Battle”: An Update Now That Sessions is in Charge of the DOJ

george-plus-caption

A Sad, but Unsurprising Update: On Wednesday, February 22, 2017, the Trump Administration withdrew the guidance that made it clear that Title IX protects transgender students.

For more background on the guidance, and why it was important, keep reading (a post from February 13, 2017, before the Trump Administration officially withdrew the guidance):

Donald Trump’s choice of Jeff Sessions as the head of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), confirms what we knew would be true the minute Trump seized the electoral college: our rights as Americans are threatened.

The DOJ is a federal agency with broad powers, including (but not limited to) the prosecution of federal crimes, the promulgation of regulations, the provision of grants to meet civil, criminal, and juvenile justice needs, oversight of various law enforcement agencies (like the FBI), and investigations (such as “pattern or practice” investigations into police misconduct).

It’s hard to believe a man like Jeff Sessions, someone who was once deemed too racist to be a federal judge, could possibly lead an agency with “Justice” in its title. His nomination to the federal bench in 1986 prompted Coretta Scott King to write a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In this letter (available here), King assailed Sessions’s conduct as a U.S. Attorney, “from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws,” saying, “he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.”

His nomination to the federal bench failed, but he became a U. S. Senator from Alabama, and now he is the Attorney General of the United States. The Senate confirmed his nomination after Sessions’s colleagues voted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren for daring to read Coretta Scott King’s letter on the Senate floor.

So, what can we expect from Sessions as the Attorney General of the United States?

As the National Law Journal wrote last November in What to Expect from a Sessions Justice Department, “Immigration, violent crime, and undoing President Obama’s executive actions are expected to be on [Sessions’s] priority list if he’s confirmed.”

This agenda would be a departure from the DOJ’s actions during the Obama Administration, which sued states over race-based voting restrictions, made an effort to reduce racial profiling, investigated police misconduct, and fought for the rights of transgender individuals.

We are only in the early days of the Sessions DOJ, and already the signs suggest that Sessions does not care about equality for all Americans. Last Friday, the day after Sessions took over the DOJ, the Agency withdrew its request asking the 5th Circuit to narrow a temporary injunction that blocked the Obama Administration’s guidance on transgender students’ rights. The joint filing states that “the parties are currently considering how best to proceed in this appeal.”

I wrote about this case over the summer in More than a “Bathroom Battle”: The Rights of Transgender Children at School. At the time, the district court judge in Texas had just imposed a nationwide injunction that (1) allows Texas and other states to force transgender students to use bathrooms that do not match their gender identities and (2) prevents the United States government from investigating this type of discrimination across the country.

This lawsuit came in response to the DOJ and the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance document (May 2016), which clarified that Title IX prohibits schools from discriminating against students on the basis of their gender identity, defined as “an individual’s internal sense of gender” that “may be different from or the same as the person’s sex assigned at birth.”

From the start, this case was challenging for the government to defend because many people seemed to misunderstand the issue, thinking that the Obama Administration’s guidance forced schools to allow boys to use the girls’ bathroom, which seems to offend some people. But here’s the language from the guidance (a guidance I presume will disappear under Trump):

Restrooms and Locker Rooms. A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity. A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so. A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.

Really, all the guidance did was clarify that schools must permit people who identify as girls to use the girls’ bathroom and those who identify as boys to use the boys’ bathroom. That’s pretty narrow.

I don’t purport to be an expert on trans rights, but I make an effort to understand the issue as best I can as a cisgender person (and I’m always learning). I’ve found that literature is helpful in this regard. For example, George by Alex Gino introduces us to a fictional transgender child who shows us some of the harms of forcing a child to use a bathroom that does not match their gender identity:

[George*] stumbled, sobbing, into the bathroom—the boys’ bathroom. Her lips trembled and salty tears dripped into her mouth. George hated the boys’ bathroom. It was the worst room in the school. She hated the smell of pee and bleach, and she hated the blue tiles on the wall to remind you where you were, as if the urinals didn’t make it obvious enough. The whole room was about being a boy, and when boys were in there, they liked to talk about what was between their legs. George tried never to use it when there were any boys inside. She never drank from the water fountains at school, even if she was thirsty, and some days, she could make it through the school day without having to go once.

In this paragraph, we can clearly see how traumatic it is for this child to use the wrong bathroom. We can also see that it’s a health hazard. No one should go an entire day at school without drinking water or using the restroom.

George–who prefers to be called Melissa–is fictional, but there are children in our schools who face similar challenges in real life. It is a shame that our children have a government that isn’t likely to secure or enforce their rights.

__________________

*I inserted “George” at the beginning of the quote because that is the name that appears throughout the paragraph in the novel. However, Melissa is the name the child prefers to use. For more on the recalcitrance of the name “George,” see George or Melissa? It Matters.

**For more uplifting news, see Authors, Does Donald Trump Care About Your Name Change?