The Scent of Old Books: How Do You Describe It?

“The smell of books intrigues and inspires,” Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic write in their research article, Smell of Heritage: a Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours. They contend that smells, such as the scent of historic paper, are part of our cultural heritage and worthy of conservation and inclusion in museums. As they explain, citing guidelines by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England: “the smells of a place are considered of value because they affect our experience of it. For this reason, they should be taken into account when defining the character of a historic area.”

To explore the identification and documentation of historic smells, the researchers studied the odor of old books, looking for ways to communicate how it smells. The sample book was Les Chardons du Baragan, published in 1928 and purchased from a second-hand bookstore in London. Study participants smelled an extract of this book as one of eight unidentified odors, which included “chocolate,” “coal fire,” “old inn,” “fish market,” “dirty linen,” “coffee,” and “HP sauce.”

Participants described the historic book smell in a variety of ways. The word “chocolate” was the most prevalent description. The next most common descriptions were “coffee,” “old,” “wood,” and “burnt.”

Meanwhile, participants chose the following words to describe the smell of Wren Library at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a historic library: woody, smoky, earthy, vanilla, musty, sweet, almond, pungent, medicinal, floral, fruity, green, rancid, bread, citrus, sour, and creamy.

The authors of the study connected this information to a chemical evaluation of the historic paper odor and created a odor wheel so that “untrained noses could identify an aroma from the description and gain information about the chemical causing the odour.”

I, with my “untrained nose,” have always loved the smell of old books, especially the earthy fragrance that permeated my undergraduate library. I described this aroma in my new adult novel, Two Lovely Berries (2014), like this:

I spent much of my time at Yale, probably too much of it, in Sterling Memorial Library, a grand building in need of no ivy, where the stacks led to well-hidden reading rooms that were empty enough for me to think or daydream without interruption. A faint musty scent hung in the air, the smell of tradition and scholarship; I wore it like a perfume.

Fond memories of that “faint musty scent” at the same alma mater aren’t the only similarities between Nora Daly’s fictional life and my real one, but it’s all I’m willing to admit.  😉

Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, CT

*Cecilia Bembibre & Matija Strlic, Smell of Heritage: A Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours, Heritage Science (2017) (linked above).

**See also, The Quest to Better Describe the Scent of Old Books (

What Every Kindergartener Needs: A Study Guide for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?


Recently, Moppet Books, led by Frederik Colting and Melissa Medina, launched a series of so-called “learning guides” for children based on classic novels for adults. Known as KinderGuides, the books contain illustrations and simplified versions of the original classic plots.

These derivative works would be fine if the classic books were in the public domain, like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, a source of inspiration for Anusha of Prospect Corner (Modern Middle Grade), and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the basis for Amelia Elkins Elkins (Contemporary Fiction).

While at least one forthcoming KinderGuide is based on a public domain work–Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice–the majority are based on books that are still under copyright. The first set of KinderGuides includes the following copyrighted works: Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Moppet Books does not have a license to borrow from these novels, prompting the literary estates of Capote, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Clarke, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster to sue them for copyright infringement. The plaintiffs filed the complaint–available here (PDF)–in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on January 19, 2017.

According to the complaint:

Although defendants call their Infringing Works ‘guides,’ the Infringing Works do not purport to be companion reference books or study guides for readers of the novels, such as those commonly used by college students. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a 6-year-old child would have the need for a ‘study guide’ to inform his or her understanding of the adult novels.

Yes, it is hard to see a Kindergartener using a “study guide” for these classics, but the derivative works could still be “fair use” (and therefore not copyright infringement) depending on its (1) purpose, (2) nature, (3) the “amount or substantiality of the portion” of the original work used; and (4) the impact of the use on the original work’s market. Copyright Act, 17. U.S.C. § 107.

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.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Moppet’s Frederik Colting has found himself in court facing similar allegations. He is the author (writing under a pen name) of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, the unauthorized sequel to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In 2009, Salinger filed suit against Colting, alleging copyright infringement. In the settlement, Colting agreed not to sell his derivative novel in the United States.

Among the “coming titles” in Colting’s KinderGuides series is a children’s version of Catcher in the Rye. I wonder what the Salinger estate thinks about that.

A Review of Anusha of Prospect Corner (Our #Ownvoices Novel Inspired By Anne of Green Gables)!


Via Sinead at The Huntress of Diverse Books, a book blogger with Sri Lankan roots:

I had such a weird feeling while reading this book, as I was actually able to relate to some of the experiences that Anusha and Pramila had. I’ve never been represented like this before, so it took me a long time to get used to it. People not knowing where Sri Lanka is; people asking where I’m originally from; and the mispronunciation of my name (even though my name is Irish) – these are all things that have actually happened to me.

One of my goals when I was writing Anusha of Prospect Corner with my twins was to create a character with whom they could identify, and it’s wonderful to know that others identify with Anusha too. Sinead is a quarter Sinhalese Malaysian, and Anusha, like my daughters/co-authors, is a quarter Sri Lankan. The experiences Anusha and her mother have come from experiences I and my family members have had as multiracial Americans of Sri Lankan ancestry.

Sinead’s full review of our middle grade novel is available here. I shared her thoughts with my twins, and they were thrilled. Thank you, Sinead, for reading and reviewing our book!

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

Here’s the description:

For Anusha Smyth, four-leaf clovers pop out of the grass like 3D optical illusions, practically begging her to pick them. She hopes they’ll bring her luck. She has big plans for 7th grade, but first she needs to convince her mom to move back to the United States. Unfortunately, a nosy neighbor keeps getting in the way. With Mrs. Lowry on the prowl — and she isn’t the only obstacle — Anusha’s going to need more than luck to make her dreams come true.

PS. Anusha’s “superpower” is something I share. I don’t look for four-leaf clovers. They find me. Over the summer, I even came across a six-leaf clover.


Amal Meets Amal (Finally) #DiverseBookBloggers #ReadDiverse2017


I don’t often come across a character in a book who shares my first name: Amal, which is Arabic in origin and generally means “hope.” Thanks to Amal Clooney,* more people in my part of the world are aware of it now, but when I was a kid, I didn’t come across any other “Amals” in reality or in fiction. The only exception is “Amahl” from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and not only is that character’s name spelled differently from mine, but we’re also different genders. His existence encouraged many people to assume I’m male when they see my name on paper, a mistake that used to bother me when I was a kid.

Back then, I would have appreciated a book like Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. This light, young adult novel features an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teenager named Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim. Like me, she knows what it’s like to look different from everyone else at school, to practice a different religion, and to have a name that people frequently misspell or misstate. As she recounts hearing:

Hey Amal, did you notice the sub teacher called you ‘Anal’ at rollcall this morning?

I’m familiar with that embarrassing typo too. I often receive mail addressed to “Mr. Anal [B.].” Spell check is not my friend.

It was nice to read a book with a character who knows what this feels like. Amal Abdel-Hakim is smart, funny, and brave enough to assert her identity even when she knows it won’t be easy. In the novel, she decides to wear a hijab full-time, including at her snooty private school. Ms. Walsh, the principal, is opposed to Amal’s choice, saying,

Amal… hmmm… I don’t want to- I mean, I want to tread delicately on this… sensitive issue… hmm… Did you speak to anybody about wearing… about abandoning our school uniform?

Ms. Walsh assumes that Amal’s parents are forcing her to wear the headscarf–which is not true–and then tells Amal that she’s violating the school’s “history of tradition” by deviating from the strict uniform policy. It’s an Australian private school, which the novel suggests might be able to get away with prohibiting students from wearing clothing associated with their religion. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens.

In my country, the United States, private schools are often able to impose strict dress codes that prohibit religious clothing or symbols because students at private schools don’t have constitutional rights, including the First Amendment’s right to freely exercise religion. Public schools are another matter. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”** However, courts have upheld many restrictions on student expression, including restrictions that impinge on religious freedom, especially if the restriction is viewpoint- and content-neutral. See, e.g. Jacobs v. Clark County School District, 529 F.3d 419 (2008) (upholding a dress code that prohibited a printed message that reflected a student’s religious beliefs).

These days, whatever the constitution may or may not require, many schools avoid the issue by choosing to have dress codes that include religious exemptions. Here’s one example (PDF): “Head apparel (hats and hoods) are not permitted to be worn inside the school building, with the exception of those worn for medical or religious purposes,” thus permitting hijabs and similar religious clothing.

I wonder, though, as my country becomes increasingly Islamophobic, will these exemptions disappear? If so, will the courts condone it? We shall see.



*Thanks, but no thanks. Virtually everyone I meet for the first time points out that (1) I share my name with George Clooney’s wife, and (2) we’re both lawyers. I’m tired of having this conversation over and over again. [Update: And now that Amal and George are expecting twins, they’ll add that to the list too!]

**Public school teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights [] at the schoolhouse gate” either. However, at least in my state, they do not have the right to wear religious clothing at school. In Pennsylvania, a state law prohibits public school teachers from “wearing… any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect, or denomination.” 24 Pa. Cons. St. Ann. § 11-1112; see U.S. v. Bd. of Educ. for Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 911 F.2d 882 (3d Cir. 1990) (upholding the statute under an employment discrimination law because “barring religious attire is important to the maintenance of an atmosphere of religious neutrality in the classroom”).

***For another opinion on Does My Head Look Big in This?, see: Huntress of Diverse Books (“Abdel-Fattah took a topic that is discussed in such detail so often (nowadays and at that time) and was able to make me feel like I wasn’t being lectured.”)

“The Basis of My Sexual Education” #GabiReadalong


Gabi Hernandez of Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl In Pieces is an unusual main character to meet in an American young adult novel. She looks nothing like the sickeningly thin protagonists we typically find on the covers of many books in this genre. She’s also of Mexican ancestry, a background some question when they look at her:

They always think I’m White, and it bugs the shit out of me. Not because I hate White people, but because I have to go into a history lesson every time someone questions my Mexicanness.

But overall, she’s a typical teenager who writes poetry, struggles with certain subjects in school, applies to college, hangs out with her friends, and wants a romantic relationship. When we meet her, she’s a high school senior who’s never been kissed. She’s interested in a handful of boys, one of whom is worthy of receiving her beef jerky from Mexico. When this guy comes over, “Everything was ready… the beef jerky, the sodas, my heart, hopes and expectations.”

Those hopes and expectations do not include an unplanned pregnancy. Gabi’s fear of pregnancy is borderline obsessive and stems from the story of how she got her name. As we learn in the opening paragraph of the book:

My  mother named me Gabriela after my grandmother who–coincidentally–didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was not married and was therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty five. That story forms the basis of my sexual education.

It’s no wonder Gabi is afraid of getting pregnant. Her fear reminded me of an article I read recently about Franz Kafka, whose aversion to sex may have been based on an intense fear of the potential consequences of sexual activity, particularly the contraction of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Gabi, however, lives in a time and place with much better treatments for STIs–even for infections like HIV that were unknown in Kafka’s time–and so her silence about STIs is understandable. I saw only one mention of STIs in the novel (three STIs at once: AIDS, herpes, and chlamydia).

For Gabi, the worst outcome of sexual activity is an unplanned pregnancy that could limit her future. She wants to go to college. She wants to move out of her “one-horse town.” Hoping to achieve these goals, she recalls her mother’s advice: “‘Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.’ Eyes open, legs closed,” but wonders why her mother’s advice to her 15-year-old brother is merely, “Make sure you take a condom with you.” It’s one of many unfortunate double-standards girls face on a daily basis. This novel is an interesting way of exploring these important issues.


*Thank you to Naz of Read Diverse Books for encouraging me to read this book & organizing the #GabiReadalong. There will be a Twitter Chat about this book on Thursday, December 15th at 8 PM EST (the author will be answering our questions!). Please join in.

These Cats Are “Srs Bznz”

Not long ago, my (almost) 9-year-old twins faced a problem: What do they read after Harry Potter?

They wanted another series. They wanted fantasy. They wanted adventure.

For recommendations, I turned to a friend of mine with older kids. Without a second thought, she said: “The Warriors. It’s about cats.”


Look at these covers! These cats mean business. Serious business.

This feline franchise consists of an enormous number of books, including several story arcs, spin-offs, and special editions. As of 2012, 14 million English-language copies had been sold around the world, and I’m sure that number is much higher today. The author is Erin Hunter, a pseudonym for a writing team developed by HarperCollins.

So far, my kids have read 32 Warrior books. I haven’t read them myself, so I have no idea how to describe them except to say that any mention of these books reminds me of Wanda Gág’s iconic children’s story, Millions of Cats:


There are countless warrior cats in these books, all with awesome names like Cinderpelt, Bramblestar, and Leafpool.

What do these cats do? I’m not really sure, but this is how the publisher describes the first series, Warriors: The Prophecies Begin:

For generations, four Clans of wild cats have shared the forest according to the laws laid down by their ancestors. But the warrior code is threatened, and the ThunderClan cats are in grave danger. The sinister ShadowClan grows stronger every day. Noble warriors are dying—and some deaths are more mysterious than others.

In the midst of this turmoil appears an ordinary housecat named Rusty . . . who may turn out to be the bravest warrior of them all.

My kids are addicted to this franchise. They’ve renamed our family’s cats “Flowerfur” and “Sunpelt,” engage in Warrior Cat-infused imaginative play, and write Warrior Cat fanfiction.

Now, the question is, what should they read when this feline phase is over?*


*I am particularly interested in fantasy/series featuring diverse characters, but appreciate all recommendations ideal for a middle grade audience. Thank you!

**Everyone in our household now has a “Warrior Cat” name. My twins are Autumn Tail and Copper Pelt.

Censoring Diversity Under the Guise of “Political Correctness” #BookBanning


“He had us all, the way only a pretty [n-word] can.”

That’s what Yunior, the narrator of Junot Díaz’s Nilda, says about his older brother–only he doesn’t abbreviate the racial epithet. Instead, he uses the entire word, quite a few times. Yunior is a Dominican-American teenager who covets his older brother’s girlfriend, a girl with “super-long hair” and “a chest like you wouldn’t believe.” Nilda, a poignant glimpse into Yunior’s life, appeared in The New Yorker at the end of the last millennium.

A few years ago, a teacher in New York City assigned this story to her ninth grade English class, allegedly invoking the ire of school administrators who disapproved of Díaz’s use of the “n-word.” When this happened, the teacher was already struggling with the district over her lesson on the Central Park Five, a tragic case in which five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1989.

The teacher lost her job, and so she sued the New York City Department of Education, claiming that district officials retaliated against her in violation of her free speech and due process rights. According to the lawsuit, Jeena Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., et al, an assistant principal allegedly told the teacher to be “way more balanced” in how she taught the Central Park Five case because the administrator “feared that it would unnecessarily ‘rile up’ black students.”* Regarding Junot Díaz’s Nilda, a school administrator allegedly ordered the teacher to remove it from the lesson because of its use of the n-word.

Two weeks ago, on November 23, 2016, a federal court in New York dismissed the teacher’s case. The court concluded that her termination was not a violation of her rights because school districts may “limit the content of school-sponsored speech so long as the limitations are ‘reasonably related to pedagogical concerns’” and the disagreement between the teacher and school administrators regarded “the content and tone of a lesson,” which apparently is not entitled to First Amendment protections.

Courts generally give schools wide latitude when it comes to developing curricula, so I guess I’m not surprised by the outcome. It’s a shame, though.

It’s concerning that the school district would (allegedly) censor a lesson about the Central Park Five based on its fear of “rile[d] up black students.” That stereotype has no place in our educational system, though it’s hardly surprising that it’s there. The educational system harbors and reinforces all the same biases the criminal justice system does.

It’s also concerning that the school district would (allegedly) ban Nilda. I understand how offensive and controversial the n-word is. As I’ve said previously on this blog: “[T]he N-word has extraordinary force in our culture, perhaps greater force than virtually any other bigoted insult.”

School officials have a reason to worry when words that have the power to inflict pain become part of the curriculum, but in this case, we’re not talking about small children. We’re talking about 9th graders, students old enough to understand the harm racial epithets cause and the literary context in which the words are used.

As HLS Professor Randall Kennedy has pointed out, the n-word can “be said in many ways, put to many uses, and mean many things.” The context matters. In Díaz’s story, Yunior does not use the n-word maliciously.

Nevertheless, a school official allegedly ordered the teacher to remove the story from the curriculum, treating it as though it were no different from KKK or neo-nazi literature. Removal of that story from the curriculum silences a diverse voice in a subject in which non-white voices are typically rare: English literature.

That’s unfortunate, especially when the only meaningful exposure some people have to diversity comes through literature. Without it, it’s harder to break down the stereotypes that reinforce our societal biases.


*Citation: Jeena Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., et al, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162561 (S.D. N.Y. Nov. 23, 2016). [See the link in the post to read the opinion]