A School District Removed To Kill a Mockingbird From Its Lesson Plan & Replaced it with… What?

Last week, a public school district in Mississippi pulled Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum.

To Kill a Mockingbird, which addresses racial inequality in Alabama before the Civil Rights Movement, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Nevertheless, in 2017, the Biloxi School District found its content inappropriate for its 8th grade students. The Sun Herald, based in South Mississippi, said it “received a email from a concerned reader who said the [school district’s] decision was made ‘mid-lesson plan, the students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.'”

Does that mean students started reading it for class and then were told to stop (possibly in violation of the district’s policy)? How strange. This can’t be the first time the school district has learned that the novel contains the N-word. By my count, via the Kindle search function, the term appears in the novel 47 times, and Atticus Finch discourages his daughter from using it. He doesn’t call it racist, as we would today. Instead, when Scout asks him if he “defends [n-words],” he replies: “Of course I do. Don’t say [n-word], Scout. That’s common,” which is about as good as we can expect from a realistic portrayal of a man in Atticus’s position in that place and time.

The school district’s sudden decision is certainly perplexing, but is it also illegal as a violation of their students’ constitutional right to receive information?

Without more facts, I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it (despite the suspicious timing and explanation for the removal).

Generally speaking, courts in the United States tend to defer to the decisions school districts make concerning the curriculum. As I wrote in a previous post, On Parenting Other People’s Children (& Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere):

First Amendment law is notoriously vague and internally inconsistent, but we can draw a few principles from it. In Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), a plurality of the Justices held that a school board could not remove books from a library for the purpose of denying students access to unpopular ideas — but those same Justices noted the board “might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values.”

Six years later, in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the Supreme Court affirmed the power of schools to determine the content of their own speech, and held that a public high school was permitted to delete two stories from the school newspaper (one about teenage pregnancy, another about divorce) because the paper “bear[s] the imprimatur of the school” and the school’s actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” See Ward v. Polite, 667 F. 3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“The neutral enforcement of a legitimate school curriculum generally will satisfy [the Hazelwood test].”).

So, school districts have broad latitude over the lessons they teach our children, and Biloxi has made a decision that To Kill a Mockingbird will not be a school-sponsored vehicle for inculcating those lessons. The book remains in the school library for students to read on their own.

Based on the negative reaction the school district’s decision has received, it seems that many people believe that To Kill a Mockingbird should be required reading. There was a time I thought so too, but why did I feel that way? I read it for school, and loved it, but my husband, who grew up in a town next to Biloxi, can’t remember if he read it. It’s a good book, but it can’t be the only book capable of teaching us about compassion and racial justice.

Rather than insist that school districts keep the same reading list for decades, I encourage them to branch out and find new books that will resonate with their students (as I mentioned last week in my Annie Spence-like letter to the book).

On that note, I’ll ask a question I’ve asked on this blog before: What books should students read *instead* of To Kill a Mockingbird? I’m particularly interested in novels that are something To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.

So far, I haven’t seen any reference to what book Biloxi’s 8th grade students are reading instead of Harper Lee’s classic novel. I wonder if it’s an adequate replacement.

Anusha Of Prospect Corner: “A Delight From The First Word To The Last”

Via Jaclyn at Covered in Flour:

Anusha of Prospect Corner is a delight from the first word to the last.  A modern, diverse and multicultural retelling of Anne of Green Gables, Anusha introduces Anusha Smyth, who leaves her father’s house in a cookie-cutter suburb she calls “Camazotz” (love the L’Engle shoutouts!) to live with her mother, Pramila Carter, and uncle Manoj in a big, old, rambling house in Philadelphia.  Like Anne, Anusha is a redhead and a dreamer.  Anusha likes her red hair, but is sensitive when questioned about how she could be a redhead and also have Sri Lankan heritage. […]

I’ve been reading about this project on Amal’s blog since she and her twin daughters first started working on it together, and I’m so very glad that I finally got to sit down with the book.

Thank you, Jaclyn, for reading our book and for sharing your thoughts on it! For her full comments, see here. I’ve known Jaclyn through our blogs since 2012, but I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the beginning of the summer. We’re both huge fans of L. M. Montgomery’s work.

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

To learn more about how we wrote this book, see:

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.


John Steinbeck & the Cost of Centurial Copyright Protection

John Steinbeck passed away in 1968, leaving behind a litigious set of heirs who have fought over the right to control his literary work for decades. The most recent iteration of this legal battle, this time between Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law and Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, ended with a jury award of $13.15 million to the stepdaughter.

Here’s the backstory:

  • Through his will, Steinbeck left ownership of the copyrights he renewed in his lifetime to his wife and a $50,000 trust to each of his two sons (from a previous marriage).
  • By law, Steinbeck’s wife as well as his sons were entitled to royalty payments for the works renewed after his death (the law required publication/registration and permitted renewal back then; it’s different now).
  • A 1983 settlement agreement increased the sons’ share of the royalty payments in exchange for giving Steinbeck’s wife control over the exploitation of the copyright (which means the right to license the work to third parties, turning it into royalty-generating movies, spin-offs, etc).
  • Steinbeck’s wife died in 2003, leaving ownership/control of the copyrights to her heirs, including Steinbeck’s step-daughter.

In the most recent litigation, the step-daughter alleged that the son and daughter-in-law thwarted attempts to turn Steinbeck’s works into royalty-generating projects, including new movies (projects that purportedly interested Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence).

The jury sided with the step-daughter, and the daughter-in-law has stated she will appeal. After that, let’s hope the battle over the copyrights to Steinbeck’s work will finally come to an end. Unfortunately, it’s possible that new legal issues will arise among the heirs until John Steinbeck’s work falls into the public domain, a date that the law has pushed back numerous times since Steinbeck’s death.

Based on the law at the time Steinbeck wrote his novels, when authors were entitled to two consecutive 28-year-terms of copyright protection (56 years total), his books would be in the public domain by now. However, the 1976 amendments to the Copyright Act changed the copyright period for Steinbeck’s novels to 75 years. Then, in 1998, for works still within the 75-year-period, amendments to the law extended copyright protection by another twenty years. The extension was challenged as unconstitutional but, in 2003, the Supreme Court upheld it 7-2 in Eldred v. Ashcroft. The result is 95 years–nearly a century–of copyright protection.

Think of all the judicial resources our courts would’ve saved had Steinbeck’s works entered the public domain after 56 years instead of 95? Think of all the derivative works–the retellings, the new movies–we could’ve enjoyed by now?

Oppressively long copyright protection does nothing more than stifle creative derivative works and enrich heirs who often have merely a tangential relationship to the person who created the work. As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent in Eldred:

[A]ny remaining monetary incentive is diminished dramatically by the fact that the relevant royalties will not arrive until 75 years or more into the future, when, not the author, but distant heirs, or shareholders in a successor corporation, will receive them. … What potential Shakespeare, Wharton, or Hemingway would be moved by such a sum? What monetarily motivated Melville would not realize that he could do better for his grandchildren by putting a few dollars into an interest-bearing bank account?

With Steinbeck’s books, we may finally see more derivative projects develop, but only if the creators of those projects are willing and able to pay the price Steinbeck’s wife’s heirs want for it.

“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: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3857176/pdf/pone.0081238.pdf

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

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

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



Childfree Aunts, Irish Americans, & The Last Little Blue Envelope

Ginny Blackstone has horrific taste in men.

She’s the 18-year-old main character of the Little Blue Envelope series by Maureen Johnson. I wonder if I would’ve felt differently about her taste if I’d read this set of novels when I was closer to Ginny’s age. My taste in partners isn’t much different today, though. I’m married to the person I started dating a week after I turned 19.

Anyway, apart from an unwelcome cameo in the first book, I enjoyed this mildly entertaining set of novels about a recently deceased aunt who leads her niece on a European adventure through a series of letters. It was a nice summer read that doesn’t fire up too many brain cells (in other words, it’s a vacation). That said, it did get me thinking about two articles I read earlier this year:

  1. Honoring the Childfree Auntie (Ms. blog)

The nicest part about the Little Blue Envelope series is that it features a close relationship between an aunt and her niece, a relationship I rarely come across in fiction, but one that my children are lucky enough to have in real life with my sisters (one who has a child of her own and one who doesn’t). Research shows that my children are among many who benefit from these types of relationships:

A survey of 1,000 non-mothers inspired by Savvy Auntie Melanie Notkin found that children play an active role in the lives of 80 percent of women who don’t have children of their own. Another study found that it’s common for aunts to spend money on the children in their lives and assist kids’ parents financially.

For more information, see the link in the heading. These women certainly deserve our gratitude. [Thanks, sisters! Love you.]

  1. The Fading of the Green: Fewer Americans Identify as Irish (Pew Research Center)

In the second book in the series, The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of Ginny’s poor romantic options cannot believe she doesn’t know what a bodhrán is, insisting, “Come on. You knew that. You’re Irish. All Americans are Irish.”

Obviously, all Americans are not of Irish descent, and I’m sure this character knows that. He’s just being annoying, as is his way. However, his statement reminded me of a Pew study that shows that the percentage of Americans who trace their ancestry to Ireland is slowly declining.

I look South Asian, thanks to my Sri Lankan mom, but I have Irish ancestry on my Dad’s side. That’s how my daughters have red hair, just like Anusha, the star of our Anne of Green Gables-inspired novel, Anusha of Prospect Corner.