Archives for category: Literature

The publisher of the many books written by Theodor Geisl (“Dr. Seuss”) announced that it was suspending publication of six books that contained demeaning drawings of Asian and African figures.

The books that will no longer be published are:

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”

“If I Ran the Zoo”

“McElligot’s Pool,”

“On Beyond Zebra!,”

“Scrambled Eggs Super!”

“The Cat’s Quizzer.”

Having written a book in 2003 called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn, I have a long-standing interest in censorship of books, textbooks, and tests. In that book, I came down on the side of free speech and freedom of expression. I did not grapple, however, with the real dilemma presented by books that contained hateful images, even if they were not seen as such when they were first published. I was looking instead at organized efforts to cleanse publications of anything that might offend anyone, like a reference to a cowboy or a landlady or a man wearing a sombrero or an elderly person using a cane.

I wrote about campaigns to remove Huckleberry Finn from class reading lists, to revise Shakespeare to remove bawdy language, and to remove all gendered roles from books.

If I had the chance to revise The Language Police, I would express a different opinion today. I don’t think that children should be required to read books that contain images that are insulting to people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, or religion.

Dr. Seuss wrote wonderful books that did not contain objectionable images. His work will survive. I actually met Theodor Geisl (Dr. Seuss) at a dinner party at the home of Robert Bernstein, the publisher of Random House. He was not a racist or a sexist. The messages that I got from the books I read to my children were humorous, funny, anti-authoritarian, and very appealing to children. My sons learned to read because we read Dr. Seuss so often, again and again, books like “Cat in the Hat” and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Those books taught them the playfulness of language. We also read “I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew,” which had a very important lesson about not imagining that there was some ideal place out there “where they never have troubles, at least very few,” and that it is best to confront the problems you have in the here and the now. I memorized the opening lines of “Happy Birthday to You” because of its wonderful, wacky rhymes. Another favorite “Yertle the Turtle” was an implicit critique of big shots who tried to lord it over everyone else.

So I write as a mother and grandmother who admired Dr. Seuss’s works. Those that contain racist and insensitive images dishonor him. Any offensive images should be cut out.

Republicans have suddenly become big fans of Dr. Seuss, who was a liberal Democrat and a passionate anti-fascist (Antifa). They say that withdrawing his books because of racist imagery is “cancel culture.”

Donald Trump Jr. has been especially vocal about the harm of “cancel culture.” He is suddenly a fan of liberal anti-fascist Dr. Seuss. Real “cancel culture” is trying to cancel the results of a national election because you lost. Real “cancel culture” is suppressing the votes of people who are likely to vote for the other party. The worst “cancel culture” is using your power to cancel democracy.

The wounded Republicans who decry “cancel culture” are worried that the white male dominant culture in which they grew up is slipping away. Trump Sr. said he would put an end to “political correctness,” so that it would once again be fine to make jokes about women and people of color.

Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect expressed his opinion in a Seussian poem:

Kuttner on TAP
If We Ran the Zoo
A lefty named Ted used his art to fight bigots
His books and cartoons were like tolerance spigots.
He located his parables on islands and zoos
And adopted the sweet pen name of Doctor Seuss.

Some of his Sneetches had bellies with stars
They dissed other Sneetches with none upon thars.
The north-going Zax dumbly blocked the way
Of the south-going Zax so that neither could play.

So many of his stories had the same takeaway:
No one is privileged, no race should hold sway.
Our kids grew up with Ted’s tales as teachers
Absorbing the lessons along with the creatures.

Some of his stories were merely in fun
But Ted Geisel’s great cause was to put hate on the run.
His wartime cartoons in the great conflagration
Attacked every brand of discrimination.

In The Lorax Geisel was an early enviro
On gender roles, he was also a tyro.
When Mayzie the bird got weary of egg duty
Horton pitched in and hatched a beauty.

Of course good Doctor Seuss lived in a time
When stereotypes were as common as grime.
Once in a great while, one crept into his whimsy
But against his good deeds the charge of bigot is flimsy.

So swap out some pictures
But please keep the text
And watch who you cancel
For you could be next.

My hunch, having met the real Dr. Seuss, is that if he were alive today, he would change the illustrations in the offending books. And he would applaud the decision to revise them. He was born in 1905; he lived in a time when racism was commonplace and acceptable. It is not any more. And it should never be again. And Dr. Seuss would agree.

Jenny Offill wrote a new introduction to a new edition of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which will by published this month by Penguin Classics. It was excerpted in the New Yorker. Her beginning reminded of something that Fred Hechinger, longtime education editor of The New York Times, wrote long long ago. He said that the definition of a classic, to him, was that it changes in meaning as the reader gets older. You read the classic, and the classic reads you.

It begins:

In 1916, Virginia Woolf wrote about a peculiarity that runs through all real works of art. The books of certain writers (she was speaking of Charlotte Brontë at the time) seem to shape-shift with each reading. The plot might become comfortingly familiar, but the emotional revelations within it change. Scenes once passed over as unimportant begin to prickle with new meaning, as if time itself had been the missing ingredient for understanding them. Woolf went on to describe the works she returned to again and again:

At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.

For me, “Mrs. Dalloway” is such a book, one to which I have mapped the twists and turns of my own autobiography over the years. Each time, I have found shocks of recognition on the page, but they are always new ones, never the ones I was remembering. Instead, some forgotten facet of the story comes to light, and the feeling is always that of having blurred past something that was right in front of me.

Andrea Gabor has written recently about the importance of civics education. She has reminded us that the obsession with standardized testing has robbed students of the joy of learning and consumed time that could be better spent in other ways.

The 22-year-old Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who spoke so beautifully at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, reminded her that we have lost the study of poetry in our mad Race to Leave No Child Behind and to force testing on every student and teacher.

I heartily agree with Gabor. I have always loved poetry. I edited two collections that included many iconic poems: The American Reader and The English Reader (with my son Michael). During a time when I was grieving the loss of a child, I read poetry and found solace in a poem by Ben Jonson. When my children were young, we read poetry together, and they learned the fun of wordplay.

Gabor writes in her article about the need to allot more time to reading and writing poetry.

For too long, poetry has been treated as impractical, and even frivolous, with just 12% of the U.S. adults reporting, in 2018, that they had read a poem during the previous year. Perversely, that sad metric represented a major improvement over the previous decade, when annual poetry reading fell to below 7%. With schools encouraged to focus on practical subjects such as math, science and engineering, and a growing emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core standards used to help states and school systems decide what to teach, poetry has become an afterthought.

It shouldn’t be. Poetry can be inspirational and teach important lessons about communication (thanks again, Amanda Gorman). It can even be practical, as poetry-loving business executives have long asserted. Elevating the role of poetry also could serve as a low-cost way to bolster student creativity and engagement.

For children, poetry serves as a key to literacy with the rhythm and cadence of books like Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” helping even the youngest decode words and meaning, while its absurd rhymes make reading fun. Think of Thing One and Thing Two and the havoc they’ll do.

As children get older, the metaphors and ambiguity of more complex poems serve as an intellectual puzzle, helping youngsters analyze, make connections between words and concepts, and foster critical thinking. Poetry teaches grammar in bite-sized stanzas. Great poems embed unforgettable images and teach the power that a few spare words by Carl Sandburg can convey:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Gorman herself described the research skills that her inaugural poem employed, including examining the work of earlier poet laureates, as well as the oratory of Fredrick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. She drew on the musical “Hamilton,” which pays homage to hip hop and rap, the street poetry that rose out of economic devastation in the 1970s. And she examined tweets following the Capitol riot, which inspired the line, “We’ve seen a force that would shatter this nation rather than share it.”

For Gorman and Biden, who both wrestled with speech impediments, reciting poetry paved the way to eloquence. Gorman has trouble pronouncing Rs, so she practiced the rap lyrics of “Aaron Burr, Sir” from “Hamilton.” To help him overcome a stutter, Biden recited the poems of William Butler Yeats.

For poor children, from New York City to New Delhi, poetry serves as an especially important outlet for self-expression and even for promoting mental health. In Allison Baxter’s class of English-language learners at West Chicago high school, teaching Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” is a key to understanding Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” The poem begins:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

The sophistication of the language and grammar in both the poem and the play provide a welcome challenge for students who relish reciting excerpts from both works, Baxter says. They also offer a window on the Chicago of Hansberry’s youth and an opportunity to help introduce students to their adopted city. 

Poetry has its real-world uses, too. Sidney Harman, the founder of the audio-technology company Harman Kardon, once famously said: “Get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers.” (Harman endowed a writer-in-residence program at Baruch College; I’m on the program’s selection committee.)

Consider the frustration of Wes Chapman, a health-care technology entrepreneur, who once rejected dozens of applicants for a marketing job at his Hanover, New Hampshire-based startup M2S — English majors from Dartmouth College, his alma mater — because none of them could identify a favorite poem or poet. “Marketing is a job that requires command of language and understanding how words and images influence people,” says Chapman, who notes that the scientists he worked with, at the time, recited poetry. Although Chapman favors 19th-century verse, he eventually hired a young woman who was able to recite a poem by Maya Angelou.

Poetry is an important part of the liberal arts tradition, which is again being seen as a key to business success.

School principals should encourage teachers to make time for verse. And states and districts should help fund the kinds of organizations — including libraries and student clubs — that offer resources and outlets for student poets. And with states advocating for the federal government to suspend standardized testing this year, in recognition of the difficulties posed by the pandemic, schools could be encouraged to produce year-end projects instead, including those focused on poetry.

Inspiration, creativity, joy, critical thinking about language and its nuances: these are the lessons of poetry, and they matter more than bubbling in the right answer. That is, if you care about real education.

Sara Stevenson was a middle school teacher and librarian in Austin, Texas, for many years. She wrote this post in response to the current crisis, which reminded her of Lord of the Flies.

She begins like this:

Several editorialists have compared recent events to the 1954 classic and bane of high school students for decades, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding. As a former high school English teacher, I taught the novel about a group of British school boys, early teens and younger, whose plane wreck lands them on a deserted island with no adult supervision.

Watching the images of the Trump mob assaulting the Capitol, the parallels with the novel stood out sharply, especially images of Jake Angeli, the face-painted “warrior” in a Viking hat, also known as QAnon Shaman.  

In The Lord of the Flies, when the boys first realize there are no adults, they are jubilant. Soon the boys choose their first leader, Ralph. Piggy, the bespectacled intellectual, advises the naturally popular Ralph as the boys create their own parliamentary rules of order and assign roles for keeping a signal fire burning and hunting pigs for meat.

Jack, the charismatic bully, leads the group of hunters who gradually defect from Ralph’s rule. Jack’s pig hunts morph into hunts for an imagined Beast, a shared hallucination the boys all fear. Simon, the “Christ figure,” warns Ralph and the others that there is no beast, that “the Beast is us.” When Simon appears alone on the beach in a mist, the boys in a frenzy, mistake him for the Beast, shout “Kill the Beast, spill his blood,” and murder him. 

Later Roger, the sadist, becomes Jack’s henchman and levers a giant stone to crush Piggy, the voice of reason, who is trying to make peace as all but some “littluns” have defected from Ralph’s leadership.

When a Royal Navy crew finally discovers the boys, Ralph is being chased to death by Roger and the other boys with their sharpened spears. The naval officers shake their heads at the idea that British boys had turned into such savages.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, shares ideas about teaching in difficult times.


My high school and GED students always loved wrestling with the ideas presented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bruce Springsteen. I’m sure they would now agree that America needs both – Coates’ Between the World and Me, centered around Coates’ letter to 15-year-old son, and the 71-year-old Springsteen’s Letter to You. Actually we need both masterpieces and Kamilah Forbes’ HBO adaptation of Coates’ advice on how to “become conscious citizens of this beautiful and terrible world.”

Coates’ Between the World and Me tackles “the question of my life,” which is “how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream.” It focuses on the fatal police shooting of his fellow Howard University student, Prince Jones. It illustrates how “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

But as Michiko Kakutani observed in her New York Times review, such assertions “skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made,” but Coates occasionally acknowledges there have been improvements. Kakutani writes, “His book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.” And, seeming to concur with that interpretation when discussing the HBO presentation, Coates says it is evidence that “the story America tells about itself and how it tells it is a statement on how much things have changed.”

In the wake of the string of murders by police of unarmed black Americans that are now videotaped, the brilliant 80-minute program prioritizes the police shooting of Prince Jones in Prince Georges County. The location is important because Between the World and Me described the county as a “great enclave of black people who seemed, as much as anyone, to have seized control of their bodies.” But even there, “Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all of the fears that marked it from birth.”

It takes a full book, however, to recount the story of Coates who was raised in Baltimore, the son of a Vietnam veteran, who was a Black Panther and a librarian. As a student, Coates missed the wider historical context of racism. But the Howard faculty did “their duty to disabuse me of my weaponized history.” He reached a balance, however, and as an Atlantic Magazine reporter he drove a revision of the history of the New Deal, the post-WWII Fair Deal and the GI Bill. Despite the good they did for white people, Coates documents the lies perpetuated by these chapters of the “American Dream.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, that leads to another set of truths found in Springsteen’s lyrics, as well as his autobiography, exploring the “Pax Americana” of his youth. He explains how working class kids or, at least, white youth during “the American Century,” were “destined to live the decent hardworking lives of their parents … if they could scoot through these years of wild pounding hormones without getting hurt or hurting someone else.” Bruce was acculturated into a value system where you “remain true to your crew, your blood, your family, your turf, your greaser brothers and sisters and your country. This was the shit that would get you by when all of the rest came tumbling down.”

As told in “My Hometown,” when Springsteen was 8-years-old, he would sit on the lap of “my old man,” a troubled World War II veteran who was the beneficiary of the GI Bill, and see its bounty, riding “in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town.” Springsteen’s dad would “tousle my hair and say son take a good look around, this is your hometown. This is your hometown. This is your hometown. This is your hometown.”

But even this dream for white industrial workers was foreclosed. Deindustrialization led to racial violence and with the shotgun blast which signaled, “Troubled times they had come to my hometown.”

It is no criticism of Coates’ wisdom to say it should be complemented by Springsteen’s story of economic injustice done to “black and white” which derailed the progress that was once real. “The Boss” sings of the tragedy which undermined much of the best of the “American Dream:”  “They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks. Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.

Your hometown. Your hometown Your hometown.”

Three decades later, Springsteen’s “American Skin” also supplements an understanding of the mindsets which have murdered so many black bodies. He begins the story of the “41 shots,” in Harlem, which kill Amadou Diallo as he tried to give his wallet to the police, through the cops’ eyes as “as they cross the bloody river to the other side.” Springsteen then sings about a black mother giving “the talk” to her son:

If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama, you’ll keep your hands in sight”

He concludes:

Is it a gun (is it a gun), is it a knife (is it a knife)
Is it a wallet (is it a wallet), this is your life (this is your life)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin

During this era of “Deaths by Despair,” which took off in the white working class America that helped boost Trumpism, Springsteen is the “last man standing,” the only survivor of his original band. He also uses multimedia poetry to make sense of America’s “dark evening stars. And the morning sky of blue…”

He has:

Got down on my knees
Grabbed my pen and bowed my head
Tried to summon all that my heart finds true
And send it in my letter to you

The CD doesn’t include the word “Trump.” I only saw what I believe is one clear reference to  him in “The Rainmaker.” It begins with “Parched crops dying ‘neath a dead sun. We’ve been praying but no good comes.” As they face, “The dog’s howling, homes stripped bare,” they admit, “We’ve been worried but now we’re scared.”

This fear opens the door to “the Rainmaker, a little faith for hire.” And the Rainmaker says that “white’s black and black’s white.” 

Getting back to the essential contribution of HBO’s Between the World and Me, Bruce Springsteen is my favorite poet/musical artist, but Kamilah Forbes draws on an all-star cast who place Coates’ “tactile, visceral” account of the “central truth” about the “domination of black bodies” in a profound context.  I’d say the amazing power of the images of the “entire diaspora” successfully allow Coates to speak the hardest truths without becoming excessively morbid. To really grasp Coates’ contribution, his indictments of America must be read along with the celebration of the multicultural, multigenerational expressions of black families, music, dance, art being sketched on the screen, and indomitable energy that Forbes brings together.

(I must also add that those touching scenes remind me of Springsteen’s videos of family, friends, and fellow musicians.)

The film version of Between the World and Mecombines historic and contemporary images family photos and videos, such as a baby boy feeding a candy bar to his dad, as well as historic battles, and the joyous dancing of children who would be killed, unarmed, by the police. Coates’ descriptions of Howard University as his “Mecca” juxtaposes the exuberant expressions of college students’ performances with that of tailgate parties of alumni reliving their Howard energies. Coates concludes this compilation of photos and films by saying they hold “power more gorgeous than any voting rights act.” 

Coates’ book – as opposed to a television special – had the space to acknowledge that white Americans also are a “new people.” They are “like us, a modern invention.” Coates concludes, and the awesome cast of the video also demonstrates how, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”

I expect Coates would agree that both the indictments and the glories of American culture can be best understood when his books’ horrific truths are juxtaposed with both – the multiple genres of the HBO presentation and Bruce Springsteen’s versions of history which are also presented in multiple genres of lyrics, music, autobiography, and film.    

From Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac”:

Today is the birthday of the poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros (books by this author), born in Chicago (1954) and best known for the highly acclaimed coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street (1984). Although the book was largely ignored when it was first published, its popularity grew, and soon Cisneros became the first Mexican-American woman to sign a contract with a big American publishing house. The House on Mango Street has since been translated into a dozen languages and has become required reading for middle schools and high schools throughout the United States.

Cisneros was the third child — and the only girl — in a family of seven children, and she spent most of her childhood rootless, moving back and forth between Chicago and Mexico City. Because her father felt that daughters were meant for husbands and not necessarily careers, she was free to study anything she wanted in college, including something as “silly” as English. But like many young Mexican-American women, she was expected to live at home — either until she was married or kicked out because of what she calls “some sexual transgression — you know, you’ve had a baby or you come out and say you’re gay.” Cisneros found her way out in poetry. “I said that I needed a place of my own to write, which was true. But I also wanted to have freedom to lead my life and to fall in love and to do things I couldn’t do under my father’s roof.”

Cisneros studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but she felt disconnected from her fellow students there. “I didn’t want to sound like my classmates; I didn’t want to keep imitating the writers I’d been reading. Their voices were right for them, but not for me,” she wrote later. When she realized that, she felt free to draw from her own background to tell the story of Esperanza, a Latina girl who is growing up in a rundown Chicago neighborhood and dreams of living in a real house. That book became The House on Mango Street.

From Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac”:*

It’s the birthday of poet and artist William Blake (books by this author), born in London (1757). He was four years old when he had a vision that God was at his window. A few years later, he went for a walk and saw a tree filled with angels, their wings shining. He had other visions, too: he saw the prophet Ezekiel sitting under a tree, and angels walking with farmers making hay.

When Blake was 10 his parents sent him to drawing school, and at the age of 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver. After seven years, he went into business for himself, and a few years later he privately printed his first book, Poetical Sketches (1783). It was a total flop — it wasn’t even mentioned in the index of London’s Monthly Review, a list of every book published that month.

Not long after that, Blake’s beloved brother, Robert, died at the age of 24. Blake spent two sleepless weeks at his deathbed, and when he died, Blake claimed that he saw his brother’s spirit rise through the ceiling, clapping its hands with joy. From then on, Blake had regular conversations with his dead brother. A year later, Robert appeared to William in a vision and taught him a method called “illuminated printing,” which combined text and painting into one. Instead of etching into a copper plate, Blake did the opposite: he designed an image in an acid-resistant liquid, then etched away everything else with acid, leaving a relief image, and he applied color to both the raised and etched parts of the copper plate. Illuminated printing — or as it’s now known, relief etching — was a huge breakthrough in printing. Blake wrote: “First the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged: this I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.”

Blake used this technique for many of his great works, including Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1794), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), and The Book of Los (1795). Throughout his career, he continued to see visions — in addition to communing with the spirits of relatives and friends, he claimed to be visited by the spirits of many great historical figures, including Alexander the Great, Voltaire, Socrates, Milton, and Mohammed. He talked with them and drew their portraits. He was also visited by angels and once by the ghost of a flea, whose portrait he drew. He wrote: “I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation [..] ‘What,’ it will be Question’d, ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host.”

Blake died at the age of 69. He spent the day of his death working on a series of engravings of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That evening, he drew a portrait of his wife, and then told her it was his time. A friend of Blake’s who was there at his deathbed wrote: “He died on Sunday night at 6 o’clock in a most glorious manner. […] Just before he died, His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten’d and He burst out into Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.”

At the time of his death, Blake was an obscure figure, best remembered for his engravings of other peoples’ work, or maybe his one famous poem, “The Tyger.” Among those who knew more about his life’s work, the consensus was that Blake was insane. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which he had engraved and painted by hand, had sold fewer than 20 copies in 30 years. It wasn’t until more than 30 years after his death that a husband-and-wife team, Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, published a two-volume biography of Blake that firmly established him as a brilliant and important artist.

He said, “Without minute neatness of execution, the sublime cannot exist! Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas.”

This entry had to appear today because it is Blake’s birthday.

The school district of Burbank, California, is embroiled in a bitter debate about book banning. The books in questions are about racism, and black parents are complaining that the books are racist. Among the books that parents want removed are: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the most censored books in American literature; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

I wrote a book about censorship of language on tests and in textbooks and of books used in school. It is called The Language Police. I recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about the history of these practices.

The Los Angeles Times describes the controversy:

During a virtual meeting on Sept. 9, middle and high school English teachers in the Burbank Unified School District received a bit of surprising news: Until further notice, they would not be allowed to teach some of the books on their curriculum.

Five novels had been challenged in Burbank: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay” and Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery Medal-winning young-adult classic “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”

The challenges came from four parents (three of them Black) for alleged potential harm to the public-school district’s roughly 400 Black students. All but “Huckleberry Finn” have been required reading in the BUSD.

The ongoing case has drawn the attention of free-speech organizations across the country, which are decrying it as the latest act of school censorship. The charge against these books — racism — has been invoked in the past, but in contrast to earlier fights across the country, this one is heavily inflected by an atmosphere of urgent reckoning, as both opponents and defenders of the novels claim the mantle of antiracism.

The debate within the district comes after a summer of mass protests calling for an end to the unjust treatment of Black people. As a result, many institutions and school districts like BUSD are taking a hard look at themselves, their policies, curriculums and practices, in many cases publishing antiracist statements. And while book banning has a long history in America, the situation in Burbank — once a sundown town that practiced racial segregation — is freshly complicated.

In the abstract, it’s a dispute about the meaning of free speech and who gets heard. More specifically, it’s about what should be taught to the district’s roughly 15,200 enrolled students — who are 47.2% white, 34.5% Latino, 9.2% Asian and 2.6% Black — and how Burbank can move forward on race boldly but sensitively...

A week after teachers learned of the removal, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) sent a letter to BUSD urging the district to allow teaching of the books while the challenges are under review. On Oct. 14, PEN America released a petition calling for the same.

“[W]e believe that the books … have a great pedagogical value and should be retained in the curriculum,” read letter from the NCAC.

Books written by or featuring people of color are “disproportionately likely to be banned,” said James Tager, PEN’s deputy director of free expression research and policy. “That is a decades-long trend that advocates and observers have seen.”

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews a book for young people. The New York Times described the book as “a modern masterpiece–as epic as the “Iliad” and “Shahnameh,” and as heartwarming as “Charlotte’s Web.” It’s for the kids act the lunch table; the heroes of tomorrow, just looking to survive the battle of adolescence.” John agrees.

He writes:

The first word on the cover of Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) is untrue. In truth, the author’s first name isn’t Daniel. It was Khosrou, who was a king 1500 years ago. Nayeri’s parents were both professionals and they were descended from elites, but he became a refugee growing up poor in Edmond, Oklahoma. The acquired name of Daniel was less likely to prompt rejection, discomfort, and sadness.

The book’s first sentence is: “All Persians are liars and lying is a sin.  That’s what the kids in Mrs. Miller’s class think.” But Daniel’s dad, Massoud, who also was a poet, says Persians are worse than liars because they’re poets, so they don’t know they’re liars. The truth about poets is, “They are just trying to remember their dreams.”

Daniel draws on 6,000 years of Persian memories and the Oklahoma culture of his childhood to make sense of his “last memories” of those he loved. He goes back and forth from the dreams of Iran and Oklahoma, weaving a historic tapestry, complete with the flaws that are purposely woven into Persian rugs.  

Many key themes come from 1,001 Nights, which is “not in true history, but in myth history.” The Persian king, Shahryar, marries a woman every night and executes her the next day until Scheherazade, a “finigonzon” (beautiful girl), learns to survive by telling incomplete stories each night and crafting a new one the next morning. She survives by never getting to a last memory.

The Oklahoma evils, exemplified by Brandon Goff, the bully who abused Daniel the most, aren’t as extreme. He suffers just as much when trying to bond with the beautiful and affluent Kelly J., and she cruelly reads the Valentines Day card he sent her to their classmates. But, Daniel is painfully aware of how his classmates just watch and remain silent, illustrating the evil of “all the stuff you’ve left undone.”

The children’s acculturation towards evilness is foreshadowed in their class lesson during the Iraq War. Jared S. “draws a bunch of fighter jets shooting arrows at monkeys on camels.” Daniel wants to tell about being three-years-old and being bombed by Saddam Hussein every night, but nobody listens. After trying to enlighten a classmate, he’s brushed off, “I-ran, I-rack “I’d kick em in the balls.”

Another theme comes from the tale of Mithridates, who knew he was targeted for poisoning. He gave himself nonlethal doses of poison, building immunity. Since he then drank the poison with his friends who plotted against him at a banquet, they were obligated to do the same in order to hide their lies, thus killing themselves. But Daniel drew another lesson; the lies you tell to survive, or fit in, come back as evil. We can all become like Mithridates whose “poisoned heart beat poisoned blood.”

As Daniel’s stories unfold, he explores differences in the way that common themes play out. He notes, “Oklahomans don’t poison each other except with canned green beans that have a vague medicine flavor.” He then gives hilarious descriptions of how processed food, especially sweets, fit into different social roles, especially at church potluck dinners.

His altered drawing of the Oklahoma map illustrates the best of its culture. It looks like a soup bowl that Christians use to feed strangers. In the other outline of the state, the Panhandle is the handle of an axe that chops down on others who are different.

A church potluck dinner degenerates after the clueless Daniel wore a Miami Dolphins cap in a group of Cowboy fans. He ends up in the Emergency Room after a fight over Oklahoma dreams he was oblivious about.

Being an A+ student makes it more difficult for Daniel, a mazloom or “a kicked puppy,” to fit in. He persists and becomes more skillful in navigating cultural complexities. He notes that “Oklahoma is the only state in the Union where it is legal to own an anti-sniper rifle” that shoots “bullets the size of milk cartons.” But he bonds with a wonderful librarian and his teacher. And trying to discuss Persian desserts can become confusing, so he deescalates by adding, “I also like Kit Kat.” He also picks up insights like, “One rule in Oklahoma is that if a grownie talks to you, speak like an Okie. If a finigonzon talks to you, be chill.”

Daniel, who was 8-years-old when he came to Oklahoma, adapts and his elementary and middle school experiences teach him insights, such as, “In Oklahoma, rich people have nice things. In Iran, rich people have nice spaces.” He also learns:

“Sometimes in a village in Iran, or Edmond, Oklahoma, a dog and a cat will have such a vicious fight that both of them are changed forever. … [They] make some kind of boundary and stick to their territory, so they can pretend they won a kingdom the size of half of a town, when they really lost a limb the size of the other half.”

During his typical day, Daniel would stay up to 4:00 am in order to miss the school bus that Brandon Goff road. He would be last in line for lunch, so he would be less likely to be seen as not having any money and get more food from the nice cafeteria lady. Even on a city bus, he learned to sit in the back after bullying left him with multiple bruises.

Daniel’s sister, Dina, was even smarter than he, and she was less likely to contort herself into being accepted. But, when they were in England, Dina tried so hard to fit in that she followed a kid’s instructions, put her finger in a door jamb, and had it chopped off.

Probably influenced by painkillers, Dina emerged from her room that night having found Jesus. Their mom, Sima, followed her lead. This almost cost Sima her life. Back in Iran, she was attending an underground church. Rather than name names under torture, she and the children escape to Dubai. Her ex-husband connected them with a sheik who seemed willing to rescue them. But he wanted Dina as his wife. The mom got them out of the situation by telling him that the child bride he wanted was a Christian. So, they found themselves homeless.

In a camp in Italy, Daniel became close to a wonderful Kurdish football player and mentor. After probing too deeply, he learned why Kurds were treated like half of a person. His friend had been gassed so badly by Saddam Hussein that he was half of a half of a person.  

Due to the efforts of Christians like Jim and Jean Dawson, who Daniel says exemplify the best of Oklahoma, the family makes it to Edmond. His mom was their hero, working multiple jobs, enduring abuse from her second husband. Daniel describes just a part of her workday:

She comes home and goes straight to the kitchen. I don’t mean that she comes home, goes to her room to change clothes, wanders into the bathroom, picks through the mail, and then finally arrives at the refrigerator. … She [goes] straight to the kitchen to cook dinner.

As he seeks to follow intertwined dreams, Daniel learns, “History is a weave of a rug.” He understands what some people want when he learns: “A god that listens is love. A god who speaks is law.”

He eventually understands:

“Love is empty without justice.

Justice is cruel without love.”

“God should be both.

If a god isn’t, that is no God.”

Daniel learns, “If you want a god who listens, maybe all you want is pity for losing your only friend, like Mr. Sheep Sheep.” (Mr. Sheep Sheep was Daniels beloved pet who he had to leave in Iran.) If you want a god who speaks, you may embrace authoritarianism.

The novel’s climax occurs when his dad visits from Iran. At first, when learning that his classmates were afraid that his father was another migrant without papers, the prospects of the encounter look dim. But, his father wins everyone over, even being baptized at the church where Daniel had been assaulted. For about the first time, a reader can hope for an unambiguous happy ending. When his dad brings them to Water World Rapids, optimism grows even further.

Maybe Daniel can free himself from the refugees’ cycle of “last memories” of loved ones and places they lose.

Daniel foreshadows disappointment, however, when he apologizes to readers, saying that maybe Persians are sinners; and he’s a “patchwork text;” who deserves to be hit all the time; and a liar who doesn’t deserve a welcome.

“Sorry I wasted your time.”

In the last page, Daniel’s family lands back in the Economy Lodge Motel, but now he is different, “I knew we would be whole one day.” “Maybe it would take a thousand years,” the seeker of true dreams concludes, “But we’d get there, little by little.”

W.H. Auden speaks to us, about his time, about our time:

 

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden – 1907-1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.