Can You Replace Art with Macaroni and Cheese? #SavetheNEA

In the proposal for the federal budget, Donald Trump has prioritized defunding 19 independent agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Currently, the NEA receives a tiny fraction of the federal budget — less than one-hundredth of 1% — to give “Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.”

In the field of literature, for example, the NEA’s most recent Annual Report (PDF) states:

In FY 2015, the NEA awarded 36 NEA Literature Fellowships in creative writing for poetry, totaling $900,000, out of 1,634 eligible manuscripts. Proving that poets come from all walks of life, each with a different story and unique perspective, this year’s poets include a photographer who worked in factories and the mental health field, a professional rollerblader, and a combat engineer who served six years in the Army National Guard. In addition, the NEA awarded 20 NEA Literature Fellowships in translation to support new translations of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 11 different languages into English.

Critics of the NEA have struggled to figure out what art “is” and whether controversial works are worthy of government funding. As Justice O’Connor explains in National Endowment for the Arts, et al v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998):

Throughout the NEA’s history, only a handful of the agency’s roughly 100,000 awards have generated formal complaints about misapplied funds or abuse of the public trust. Two provocative works, however, prompted public controversy in 1989 and led to congressional revaluation of the NEA’s funding priorities and efforts to increase oversight of its grant-making procedures. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania had used $ 30,000 of a visual arts grant it received from the NEA to fund a 1989 retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The exhibit, entitled The Perfect Moment, included homoerotic photographs that several Members of Congress condemned as pornographic. See, e.g., 135 Cong. Rec. 22372 (1989). Members also denounced artist Andres Serrano’s work Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine.

Critics of the NEA repeatedly point to these controversial examples, even when they pretend to move beyond them. One of those critics is George Will, who simply harbors contempt for art in general. In his opinion piece in The Washington Post, he proclaims:

Let’s pretend, counterfactually, that the NEA no longer funds the sort of rubbish that once immersed it in the culture wars, e.g., “Piss Christ” (a photo depicting a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine) and “Genital Wallpaper” (don’t ask). What, however, is art? We subsidize soybean production, but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding? Or do they insist that public funds should be expended for no defined public purpose?

Mr. Will downplays the benefits of art, including the promotion of “civically valuable dispositions,” “community and connectedness,” “diversity,” and “self-esteem,” ultimately concluding that art is the equivalent of macaroni and cheese, a tasty but largely empty food. He says snidely:

The idea that the arts will wither away if the NEA goes away is risible. Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”

Personally, I agree that food, like macaroni and cheese (though preferably more nutritious), is actually a good thing that deserves government subsidies, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that art deserves encouragement and support from the government. Sure, many artists will continue to produce art without government support — that’s always been the reality for the vast majority of artists — but is that the way it should be? The message defunding the NEA sends is that art isn’t important. Is that what the American public really believes?

I can think of hundreds of ways I benefited from arts programs, which helped me get through elementary school, a relatively tough time in my life academically. Research shows us that the arts make us better students and better thinkers, and history and life experiences tell us that the arts soothe, inspire, engage, entertain, educate, and unite us. In the divisive Trump Era, all of these benefits are more important now than ever.


*The image is from Todd Parr’s It’s Okay to the Different, which is what comes to mind whenever I think about macaroni and cheese. I am a big fan of Todd Parr’s work, even though I don’t think it’s okay to eat mac n cheese in the bathtub!

What Parents *Should* Do

In Please Stop Parenting My Children, I asked others to stop providing unsolicited parenting advice, especially when that advice related to what books my children should not read.

However, right now, I will provide my own unsolicited parenting advice to families. It’s advice that I believe is not only good for families, but also good for our society and the world:


By “diverse books,” I mean literature that features individuals who come from underrepresented racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as literature that features gender minorities and individuals with disabilities.

This advice is most important for those parents who live in communities blighted by homogeneity. The United States Supreme Court ended race-based restrictive covenants on real estate in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and declared segregated schools to be illegal in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but well over a half a century later, Americans still live in residentially segregated communities and send their children to racially segregated schools. For children in this unfortunate situation, their first exposure to diversity may be through books.

Fictional playmates from diverse backgrounds should not be a substitute for real-life playmates from diverse backgrounds, but it’s a start. As research suggests, this start may well result in more empathetic children who see the value of diversity.

Hopefully, these books will bring us closer to someday achieving Martin Luther King’s dream in which individuals are not “judged by the color of their skin”– and I will add, their gender status, whom they love, or any other characteristic beyond their control — “but by the content of their character.”

It’s 2016, and we’re not there yet.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here are a few of my favorite children’s books featuring diverse characters and themes:

I hope your family enjoys these books as much as my family has.


Diverse Books Tag: Have You Read Any of These? If Not, You Should!

Diverse Books Tag

Thank you to Naz for creating the Diverse Books Tag and to Silicon for tagging me!

Here’s what I came up with:

(1) A Book Starring a Lesbian Character

That Certain SomethingThat Certain Something by Clare Ashton is a romantic comedy featuring Pia and Cate. One is a disaster-prone idealist, while the other is an elegant pragmatist. They fall for each quickly, perhaps too quickly for those of us who cringe at “insta-love,” but love isn’t the highest priority for the practical half of the pair–at least, not immediately.

To find other books starring lesbian characters, check out Lambda Literary.


(2) A Book with a Muslim Character

As I wrote in Courting Samira: An Honest Portrayal of Muslim Women:

Courting Samira“Amal Awad’s debut novel, Courting Samira, centers on a Jane Austen-style love-triangle set in a contemporary Arab-Australian community where business-like arranged marriages are still the norm… It caught my eye immediately, as I share my first name with the author and one of my daughters shares her first name with the protagonist… Overall, I appreciated Courting Samira for its nuanced look at what it means to be a modern Muslim woman in the Western world, a polite rebuke to the stereotypical depiction of Muslims that we often see in the media.”

For other books starring Muslim characters, check out Nuzaifa’s list at Word Contessa.


(3) A Book Set in Latin America

How I became a nunCésar Aira’s How I Became a Nun, set in Rosario, Argentina, focuses on a six-year-old child, who generally refers to herself as a girl while the adults refer to her as a boy. Though light on plot, this novella is a compelling foray into the mind of an imaginative, precocious child.

For more books set in Latin America, check out the recommendations at Vamos A Leer (Teaching Latin America Through Literacy).


(4) A Book About a Person With a Disability

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork features a seventeen-year-old with an MarceloAsperger’s-like condition whose father forces him into the “real world” by making him work in a law firm’s mailroom.

Though certain aspects of the legal framework in this YA book didn’t quite hold up, as I wrote in Marcelo in the Real World: A Book Law Students Should Read, “the book is worth reading for those interested in entering the legal profession.  It is a reminder about the human side of the law, particularly of the people who have been injured and who need legal representation.  These are real people with real problems…”


(5) A Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a PoC protagonist

This isn’t a genre I’ve read much lately. Thanks to this book tag, I’ve added The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo to my TBR list.

The ghost brideVia Goodreads: “Li Lan, the daughter of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia, hopes for a favorable marriage, but her father has lost his fortune, and she has few suitors. Instead, the wealthy Lim family urges her to become a “ghost bride” for their son, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at what price?”


(6) A Book set in (or about) any country in Africa:

Half of a yellow SunA book I’ve added to my TBR list is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Via Goodreads: “With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s.”


(7) A book written by an Indigenous or Native Author

Chickadee CoverLouise Erdrich’s Chickadee (the Birchbark Series) is a middle grade novel that features Chickadee and Makoons, identical twins who were born prematurely during the 1800s.

At the end of Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee: “Small Things Have Great Power, I wrote: “As I discussed [] in Correcting a Kindergarten Deficit (As Requested By An Almost-First Grader), one of my daughters has already decried her lack of exposure to Native American culture. Erdrich’s novels are one way to fill this void. The Birchbark House Series is destined for their bookshelves.”

(8) A Book Set in South Asia

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje is the first book Mr. AMB, then my college sweetheart, ever gave me. It was probably his first exposure to Sri Lanka, where my mother is from.

Tea Leaves ThumbnailFor children, I recommend Tea Leaves by Frederick Lipp (author) and Lester Coloma (illustrator). As I said in The Best Stories Are The Ones You Know Yourself: “[This] beautifully illustrated story features Shanti, a nine-year-old child from Sri Lanka’s mountainous tea region. She lives on an island, but has never seen the sea… Tea Leaves offers my daughters a glimpse into a part of their background. Shanti lives in a different region from where our relatives live, but she is a fictional friend my daughters associate with their heritage.”

(9) A Book With a Biracial Protagonist

Mexican White Boy Thumbnail CoverHere are two books with biracial protagonists: Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña and Re Jane by Patricia Park.

In What it Means to be Biracial, I wrote: “Mexican WhiteBoy explores [] structural barriers for ethnic minorities with an emphasis on the experiences of Danny and Uno, two boys caught between two identities.” Danny is half Mexican and half white, and Uno is Mexican and African American.

Patricia Park’s Re Jane is a contemporary Korean American Re Janeretelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. While I struggled with the unsettling parallels to Bronte’s Victorian novel, I appreciated Park’s portrayal of biracial identity. As I wrote in The Challenges of Modernizing a Classic Novel, “What is wonderful about the book is its portrayal of bi-racial identity, of being “Asian-ish,” of not quite belonging anywhere. These are feelings I can identify with as a multi-racial person of predominantly South Asian and Irish American ancestry.”


(10) A Book Starring a Transgender Protagonist or About Transgender Issues

A middle grade novel I plan to read soon (thanks to a recommendation from my sister) is George by Alex Gino.

Via Goodreads:

George“When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.”

I would also put Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music into this category because it involves transgender-related issues.

Frog MusicJeanne “Jenny” Bonnet, a 27-year-old frog catcher, dressed like a man at a time when women were not supposed to do that. It was actually against the law.

In Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: Portraying 19th Century Gender Norms That Still Exist Today, I discuss the evolution of anti-cross dressing laws in the United States and the ways in which the underlying gender expectations that fueled those pernicious laws remain part of our society.


Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them?

A Passing Phase & The Dangers of Conversion Therapy

Passing Phase ThumbnailJ. Paul Devlin’s A Passing Phase is a light-hearted coming-of-age story about a serious topic: societal and interpersonal bias against sexual and gender minorities. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Nate Whitby enters conversion therapy to “change” his attraction to men. He believes it’s a phase, thinking:

“Absolutely. That’s all it is. Wasn’t he simply a late-blooming hetero? Most definitely. It’ll kick in, maybe as late as college but it will kick in soon enough. It has to.”

With the “help” of his repressive mother, he turns to a therapist who is eager to “treat” him despite the fact that doing so is against the law in their state. Nate emerges from this damaging process with a better understanding of who he is, but in real life, not everyone is as lucky.

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy or Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), involves practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression. In the past, this type of therapy included such aversion-based treatments as applying electric shocks when a patient was aroused by same-sex images. Today, it includes treatments to alter an individual’s “thought patterns by reframing desires, redirecting thoughts, or using hypnosis, with the goal of changing sexual arousal, behavior, and orientation.”

These practices continue to occur despite the fact that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality as a pathology from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) more than 40 years ago.  There is also a strong professional consensus that this treatment does not alter sexual orientation or gender identity and that it presents a serious risk of harm to those undergoing it.

As Ryan Kendall testified before a California State Assembly Committee:

At the age of 16, I had lost everything. My family and my faith had rejected me, and the damaging messages of conversion therapy, coupled with this rejection, drove me to the brink of suicide. For the next decade I struggled with depression, periods of homelessness, and drug abuse.

Recognizing the risk of harm to LGBTQ youth, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has called for the elimination of conversion therapy in Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth (October 2015). The Administration noted that there are many ways to end this practice, including through the passage of legislation.

Conversion therapy on minors is now illegal in a handful of states, including California, and the District of Columbia. Do laws preventing therapists from performing conversion therapy violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

Appellate courts have said no, ultimately upholding these laws as constitutional regulations of professional conduct. In Pickup v. Brown, the 9th Circuit analyzed California’s law prohibiting mental health professionals from performing SOCE with patients under the age of 18.  The Court determined that the law prohibited conduct, but not expressive speech, and was related to a legitimate state interest in “protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors.” 740 F.3d 1208, 1231 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting 2012 Cal. Legis. Serv. ch. 835, 1(n)). Meanwhile, the 3rd Circuit analyzed New Jersey’s law banning SOCE counseling of minors and concluded that it was a “permissible prohibition of professional speech” because the state has an “‘unquestionably substantial’ interest in protecting citizens from harmful professional practices,” an interest that becomes stronger when it relates to minors. John Doe v. Governor of the State of New Jersey, 783 F. 3d 150, 153 (quoting King v. Governor of the State of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3d Cir. 2014)).

In my opinion, the protection of LGBTQ youth from harmful and discredited professional practices is not just a legitimate or substantial state interest, but a compelling one. Conversion therapy should only happen in fiction, if anywhere at all.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Below, Mr. AMB discusses Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, “a welcome addition to the sci-fi canon,” thereby preventing my blog from suffering the full effect of my current reading slump (which persists despite how good this novel sounds!).


Via Mr. AMB (thank you!):

Chambers ThumbnailI was looking for a sci-fi book to read and saw that an io9 had a review titled, “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet Is This Year’s Most Delightful Space Opera.” The recommendation in the title was good enough for me to download the book.

Set in the distant future, the novel follows the diverse crew (comprised of several humans and a variety of extraterrestrial species) of a ship that builds wormholes. Of course, if there isn’t already a wormhole somewhere, then it takes a while to get there in the first place (that’s “the long way”), and the new wormhole they’re building is next to a planet controlled by a rather belligerent species that has been tied up in warfare for as long as anyone can remember (that’s the “small, angry planet”).

Going off the title alone, I was expecting a swashbuckling tale with aliens and warp travel and all that fun stuff, and it delivered. What I did not expect, however, was a poignant allegory about the meaning of love. Not just romantic attachment, although that is in the book as well, but the love between family members, between friends, between those with shared principles or interests, and the strain put on those bonds by distance, culture, and fate.

Writing a space opera is always tricky, given the need to build whole civilizations and cultures and their histories without letting the action drag. The characters do indeed travel, ahem, a long way to a small, angry planet, but the book is less about that voyage than about discrete issues among the ensemble cast. The plot and pacing bear far more resemblance to a television series than to most science fiction books. With this structure, the world-building fits in neatly with the character drama occurring at that point in the story.

Notably, the book had a similar publication trajectory to The Martian.* After getting consistently rejected by traditional publishers, Becky Chambers set up a Kickstarter campaign (which drew $2,810 from 53 backers) and self-published the book. The book was then short-listed by the Kitschie awards, becoming the first self-published book with that distinction. Lo and behold, traditional publishing came running her way, and now the book is published by an imprint of HarperCollins.

All in all, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is a welcome addition to the sci-fi canon, and another reminder that traditional publishing isn’t particularly good at identifying up-and-coming authors with ideas for good new books.

*For my review of The Martian, see The Martian” Brushes His Teeth and Shaves Every Morning (And So Should You).

The Custom of the Country (Is To Subjugate Women) #FallingForEdith

“‘I know just what I could do if I were free. I could marry the right man,’ she answered boldly.”

custom of the countryThe speaker is Undine Marvell, née Spragg, the ambitious protagonist of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Published in 1913, Wharton’s novel is a biting portrayal of New York’s high society, one in which wealthy men aspire to have a life of leisure and women aspire to marry these men.

I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Undine realizes too late that Ralph Marvell is not “the right man” for her. In my opinion, he’s far too good for her, but I can’t blame her for being unhappy. From his perspective, it may have been a “love match,” as opposed to one arranged by his family, but from hers, it was a business deal. In their sexist world, marriage is Undine’s only way of achieving the high social status, wealth, and power she so desperately wants. To her, Ralph hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain.

Yes, Ralph is from an established family of New York society, but he does not have much wealth or business acumen. Instead, he’s an aspiring writer:

“Harvard first—then Oxford; then a year of wandering and rich initiation. Returning to New York, he read law, and now had his desk in the office of the respectable firm… But his profession was the least real thing in his life. The realities lay about him now: the books jamming his old college bookcases and overflowing on chairs and tables; sketches too—he could do charming things, if only he had known how to finish them!— and on the writing-table at his elbow, scattered sheets of prose and verse; charming things also, but like the sketches, unfinished.” [Chapter VI]

Poor Ralph, whose wife is hardly supportive of his creative tendencies or his lackluster legal career. He can’t afford the extravagant lifestyle she demands.

And poor Undine (which I can admit despite hating her). She is the product of stifling times. The demeaning gender norms of her day persist to some extent in ours; however, in our century, a woman as ambitious as Undine could reasonably strive to be a prominent person in her own right, and not just the wife of one.


*I read this novel as part of the #FallingForEdith read-along, hosted by Jaclyn of Covered in Flour and Jen of All Things Jennifer. Thank you, ladies!

**By the way, I want to wear my “proud wife” hat for a minute to mention that Mr. AMB just opened his own law firm! Thankfully, the “custom” in our modern marriage is nothing like the one described in Wharton’s novel in which a wife is expected to know nothing about her husband’s work: “Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in them (Chapter XV).” In our case, we support each other’s professional lives. I’m very excited about this next step in Mr. AMB’s legal career. That said, he probably should be a writer instead. Isn’t that true of most lawyers? 😉

How Young is Too Young to Read Gone With The Wind?


In a heartfelt introduction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, author Pat Conroy mentions how his mother (a proud southerner) read this controversial novel to him when he was only five years old:

“For the most part, I was raised in a house without books, but the ones displayed and laid out flat for the inspection of visitors were the Bible and Gone With the Wind, in no particular order of importance.


[My mother] read the novel aloud to me when I was five years old, and it is from this introductory reading that I absorbed my first lessons in the authority of fiction.”

That happened between six and seven decades ago, a time when regional differences tied to the Civil War were more apparent than I believe they are today. It was also before the Civil Rights Movement and other events put a different perspective on the inequality at the heart of the novel.

I wonder how many parents would read Gone With the Wind to their five-year-old now. Would a five-year-old even understand it?

If they’re lucky, they wouldn’t.

As I wrote last week in Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?,

“Full of racial slurs and stereotypes, the novel 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.”

I would never tell another parent how to raise their child — and I expect the same courtesy — but I will say that, when it comes to my children, Gone With the Wind won’t be on the TBR list anytime soon.

While the plot (which includes violence and sexual coercion) and overarching racist and sexist themes are too complicated for a small child to understand, the racist language is pretty easy to pick up. I would never want my children to use these words without knowing their meaning or impact, inadvertently causing harm to others who do.* The younger the child, the bigger the risk.

That said, I highly recommend the book for adults who are old enough to understand the context in which it was written. It’s a novel that certainly deserves its place as a classic for its compelling characters and engrossing portrayal of an Old South than only ever existed in fiction.

So, how about you? Did your parents read anything to you that, in retrospect, might not have been the best idea?

In my case, nothing comes to mind. There are certainly books I read before I was ready to understand them — I didn’t appreciate Pride & Prejudice when I was in elementary school — but none of the books I read at a very young age (or were read to me) were quite like Gone With the Wind.


*See More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes from Children’s Books.

**Image at the top: That’s actually a picture of one of my 7-year-olds reading A Wrinkle in Time (not Gone with the Wind!).