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).

Writer’s Block: There’s a Pill for That

Author Robert Anthony Siegel set out to resolve his writer’s block by taking a pill, a fast-acting solution to a serious problem.

In this case, though, the pill he wanted was a placebo on its face.

A placebo is a sham, but as Siegel mentions in Why I Take Fake Pills, research suggests that placebos seem to mitigate our ailments even when we know the cure isn’t “real.” These results remind me of my favorite line from Peppa Pig (please indulge me): “It’s better than real; it’s pretend!” It’s lovely to imagine an effective treatment that doesn’t have side effects and on which you can’t overdose.

Hoping to harness the real power of pretend pills, Siegel explained his problems to John Kelley, the deputy director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter, who said:

‘I think we can design a pill for that… We’ll fine-tune your writing pill for maximum effectiveness, color, shape, size, dosage, time before writing. What color do you associate with writing well?’

For Siegel, that color was “gold,” which translates to yellow in the pharmaceutical world.

Siegel’s magic pills worked once he’d reached a “therapeutic dose.” The sentences he produced were “awkward and slow,” at least in his opinion, but certainly better than nothing.

His experience has made me think about the methods I’ve used to overcome writer’s block, a challenge I face in multiple parts of my life. As A. M. Blair, I write middle grade and contemporary fiction, and under a similar (but different) name, I practice law, a job that requires me to pound out memos, briefs, and other written documents that don’t always flow easily from my anxiety-ridden brain.

Lately, I’ve been taking specific measures to address writer’s block: I take a walk, brew myself a cup of tea, close the door, and set a timer for 25 minutes. If I can get through those 25 minutes, then I’ll have something on the page. That’s a start, something to build on for as many 25 minute-increments as it takes to finish the project.

Maybe I’ll add a placebo pill to my ritual. Couldn’t hurt, right? My capsules would be purple.*

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*However, I’m not willing to pay what Siegel paid for his! Check out his article, Why I Take Fake Pills (linked above), to find out how much he paid and why.

**Definition of “Placebo” is from Merriam-Webster.

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).

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*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.