At the Women's march

At the Women's march
All Lives Matter

Never Again

Never Again
We Won't Go Back

Monday, May 19, 2014


Catching up with unread copies of The New York Times Book Review, I recently read a review of three children’s books about the Holocaust (April 6, 2014). One, a graphic novel (aka a comic book) called “Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust,” is recommended for readers age 10 and up. Translated from the French, it’s a fictional story told by a grandmother about her 6-year-old self whose parents were taken away and who then lives on a farm for the duration of the war. The second book, “Hidden like Anne Frank: Fourteen True Stories of Survival,” is recommended for middle-grade students, ages 12 and up. These true tales are more disturbing for being true, and also as they relate tales of children who survived the war – but whose parents often did not.

But the one that I was shocked to see recommended for younger children is a picture book based on a true story titled “The Whispering Town.” Although the book’s publisher recommends it for children ages 7 to 11, the Times reviewer feels that it’s “appropriate for reading to very young children [5 to 8] as an introduction to the subject of the Holocaust.” I think that even 7 is much too young.

I firmly believe that young people of all religious backgrounds should learn about the Holocaust, and I’m heartened that many high schools across the country have courses talking about this black period in world history. I hope that some of these courses even talk about the anti-semitism rife in the U.S. at the time, which prevented our country from allowing immigration of Jewish children and adults at a crucial time even after the world had learned what was likely to happen to them.

But I can’t understand why anyone would think that this tale of Nazi soldiers accompanied by bales of barbed wire would be suitable for a kindergartner. Young children often have nightmares after hearing classic fairy tales – “made-up” stories from another time and place. How much worse it seems for them to hear about horrors that could happen to them or their parents, the people who are supposed to keep them safe.

What’s to be gained from exposing these very young children to some of the worst history our world has ever known? Why would this and other reviewers (let alone the author) think that this book is a good idea? What’s to be lost by not protecting childhood for a little while longer?

Postscript: My letter about this to the editor of The New York Times Book Review was published June 1, 2014.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


In the 1950s when I was majoring in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, I often heard the word “lie” – and not only when a fisherman was challenged on the size of his catch or a politician caught with his hands in the cookie jar – or on an inappropriate sexual partner. No, I heard it when people talked about being somewhere in a prone or supine position. They would lie in bed late on a weekend morning, or lie on a sandy beach trying to get a now-dermatologically-disapproved tan.

I would hear the word “lay” only in the past tense of the above horizontal positions, or in expressions like “the lay of the land,” or, more colloquially, in regard to sexual intercourse. Even in this latter it was used in a grammatically correct way, i.e., as a transitive verb that takes an object.

But these days, the word “lie” meaning to recline in a horizontal position seems to have almost disappeared from the English language, in either its spoken or written forms. Instead, talk show participants, Oscar award winners, radio personalities (even on my revered National Public Radio), TV comics, physicians, and even many well published writers consistently say “lay” when they’re talking about someone in a reclining position.

What happened over the past sixty years? How did “lie” virtually disappear in the usage of even many (fortunately not all) educated people? My American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) says that the two forms have been confused since the 1300s and the usage guru Bergen Evans wrote in 1957, “At present the verbs lie and lay are hopelessly confused in many people’s minds. The confusion is so great and these technically incorrect forms are heard so often, that some grammarians believe they should be recognized as standard English.”

Jack Edelson, my English teacher at The Philadelphia High School for Girls, used to caution us not to base our speech patterns on “what sounds right.” “With so many radio announcers making grammatical mistakes on the air,” he would say, “the wrong starts to sound right.” I know that Mr. Edelson would heartily agree with New York Times usage expert Theodore Bernstein’s assertion: “These confusions are not infrequent, but the errors can only be classed as illiterate.”