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.”



Does A Kid In Your Life Want A “KinderGuide” For Jack Kerouac’s On The Road? Too Bad.

Back in January, a group of literary estates (Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Arthur C. Clarke) and publishers (Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) filed a lawsuit against Moppet Books over a series of “study guides” of mid-20th Century classics for young children. Moppet Books did not have a license to create “guides” of these copyrighted, classic works.

Around the time the complaint was filed, in What Every Kindergartener Needs: A Study Guide for Jack Kerouac’s On The Road?, I wrote:

Without examining the allegedly infringing work against the original novel, I can’t say whether I think these KinderGuides violate copyright law. My gut sense is that it could be copyright infringement if the KinderGuides add little new content to the original works (and thus aren’t sufficiently “transformative”) and use a substantial portion of the original works. We’ll see what happens with the case.

So, here’s the update:

On July 28, 2017, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted summary judgment on the issue of liability to the literary estates and the publishers (meaning that the Court found Moppet Books responsible for copyright infringement without a trial).

On August 15, 2017, the Court permanently stopped Moppet Books from reproducing, distributing, advertising, or transmitting the infringing works in the United States, and then ordered Moppet to destroy all remaining copies of the works. There’s a trial scheduled for October 2, 2017 to resolve the issue of “willfulness” for the purpose of assessing damages.

On September 7, 2017, Judge Jed S. Rakoff issued an opinion explaining these rulings. (available here as a PDF).  The Court said:

  • “By any reasonable comparison, defendants’ Guides copy substantial aspects of the themes, characters, plots, sequencing, pace, and settings of plaintiffs’ Novels. Indeed, that is their stated purpose.”
  • “Here, though defendants’ Guides add additional material at the end, specifically a few brief pages of ‘analysis,’ ‘Quiz questions,’ and information about the author, they are primarily dedicated to retelling plaintiffs’ stories.”
  • “Fair use… is not a jacket to be worn over an otherwise infringing outfit. One cannot add a bit of commentary to convert an unauthorized work into a protectable publication.”

I’m not surprised by the Court’s rulings or its opinion, despite my sympathy for creators of derivative works of old books that should be in the public domain by now (but aren’t).* I doubt many six-year-olds are particularly interested in a “study guide” of On The Road or The Old Man and the Sea, but it’s kind of sad to think no one will ever have one unless the authors’ distant heirs or the publishing corporations allow it.

*See John Steinbeck & The Cost of Centurial Copyright Protection.


“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.



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:

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:

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:

Sears et al (2013), Reproductive Parameters of Eastern North Pacific Blue Whales Balaeonoptera musculus, ENDANG SPECIES RES 22:23-31, available at:



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).