Life, Liberty, and Literature:
Our Q&A with Law Professor Jonathan Todres

Human rights and children’s literature are two topics dear to my heart. As you can imagine, then, I was very pleased to learn last year that Jonathan Todres was working on a book combining these two subjects. He and his co-author, Sarah Higinbotham, have now come out with Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law, and he was so kind as to speak with me on the telephone recently, and answer some of my questions about the book, his work in the field of human rights law, and what comes next with this project. Here’s what we talked about…


The NewsWhistle Q& A with Jonathan Todres

Date: March 21, 2016

Hometown: NYC

Current town: Atlanta, GA

Occupation: Law Professor


First off, I really enjoyed reading your book. I do appreciate it when academics write something that is accessible to a more general audience. And I think that the more people who know and understand something about human rights law, the better, so I hope that your book is widely read. What has been its reception so far?

First, thank you for your interest in the book. We’ve had a really exciting response to it. When we first wrote an article in 2013 in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review on the topic of human rights in children’s literature, the response was so positive that it motivated us to do the book. The early distribution and response has largely been in academic communities, as the book came out only two months ago. The paperback comes out in July, which should help reach a broader audience. What’s been exciting so far is that it’s reaching people in different fields…human rights people, children’s literature scholars, people who focus on family law, and others. It’s exciting to see people in different disciplines thinking about it and bringing their perspectives to bear, and that is what we hoped for, that the book would create a conversation about human rights in children’s literature.




It’s not at all a new idea that literature makes our moral imagination work. Ekow Yankah (who also went to law school at Columbia while we were both there) and I were talking about that when I interviewed him recently. And I know that Time Magazine claimed that reading literature makes us smarter and nicer not that long ago. (I certainly hope that’s the case!) I’d never put human rights and children’s books specifically together in my mind before reading your article (and then your book). I have always liked Dr. Seuss, Horton the Elephant, and the Whos, though, so I was pleased to read that “A person’s a person, no matter how small” was inspiring to you. If I understand you correctly, you believe that we have an obligation to teach children their rights and that teaching them through story telling is likely to be an effective method in doing so…is that correct?

I think that’s right. I think if we teach the next generation about rights, the world will be a better place. We can debate about specific content of human rights. But when you teach kids about their rights and their responsibilities to respect others’ rights, we see positive outcomes. Take bullying, for instance: when we teach kids about their rights and also about their responsibilities, we see children standing up for themselves, AND standing up for others. One of the really remarkable findings from human rights education research is that children who learn about human rights appreciate the link between rights and responsibilities. Children who do not get that type of education talk more about rights as entitlements for themselves. We don’t give children enough credit … teaching them about rights doesn’t mean they’ll just insist they watch TV endlessly. Instead, they demonstrate that they are really thoughtful, when they’re exposed to human rights concepts.

One exciting aspect of children’s literature, when it’s done well, is that books meet children where they are. For children, especially young ones, the real and the imaginative worlds often blur. Children’s literature is a wonderful imaginative world that gives children a way to confront heavy issues in a safe space.


I noticed that you cited Bruno Bettelheim and his work on fairy tales, and also that you mentioned that he was a controversial figure due to his erroneous opinions on autism, which were very influential and did a great deal of harm. Were you aware that some people had taken up Horton Hears a Who as a pro-life parable? (Audrey Geisel apparently does not approve of this politicization of her late husband’s work.)

I was aware of the pro-life interpretation. Her reaction doesn’t surprise me. There’s no evidence that that was his intention.

We focused on popular children’s stories, as those are the ones that can make rights widely known. Of course, there are debates about different authors, and even what constitutes children’s literature. As adults, we recognize that there’s often a story behind the story. We wanted to focus on the text, as it’s what a child sees. Your average seven year old is not going to read a story, and realize that the author was involved in politically unsavory behavior. They respond to the story, either positively or not.

We are adults now, we can’t claim to read stories as children would, but we tried to take a child’s perspective, and we supplemented that with an empirical study where we read to children and asked their perspectives. Early in his career, Seuss drew cartoons that used racialized caricatures, and many people have criticized them. But he also wrote stories that were decades ahead of international children’s rights law. So we made a conscious decision to focus on the stories and the human rights themes woven into the stories.


I took Human Rights Law with Professor Louis Henkin when I was at Columbia and I recall that the United States had not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the CRC), and many other such treaties, like CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women). It’s not a field I’ve kept up with much, but I know that our country still hasn’t signed on; do you see a likelihood of this changing in our lifetimes?

Things have evolved. The U.S. is now the ONLY country that hasn’t ratified the CRC. It used to be just the U.S. and Somalia, and then it was the U.S., Somalia, and South Sudan when South Sudan became independent, but now we are a party of one. U.S. exceptionalism. But I am a glass half full person. I am hopeful this will change. I think when you work on child rights issues you have to be hopeful. The current political climate is such that the U.S. will continue to hold out for the foreseeable future. But I think it will happen in our lifetime. We might have to live quite a few more years, though.


Puffin Books


When we were in law school, I worked on the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. And one of the things that is good to see after so many years is that many of the issues that we were focusing on, writing and editing and publishing articles about, that were really not part of mainstream thought then, like intersectionality, and discourse on privilege, and microaggressions…things that really didn’t get a lot of attention back then, get attention now. I don’t think those issues are necessarily always fully understood, or universally accepted, but they’re mainstream enough that articles about them pop up in my Facebook feed. They’re on the radar, and they’re part of the conversation in ways they weren’t before. So I see it is some evidence that we’re making progress with gender issues, even if the political times are more like two steps forward, one step back. Do you see the same kind of thing with children’s rights issues?

Yes, absolutely. Children’s rights…it’s put children on government agendas. Historically, governments didn’t consider children except as subsumed within the family. Family is critical to children’s development and well-being. But to recognize that children are also rights holders, that is really remarkable.

A lot of my work focuses on human trafficking, particularly child trafficking. When I worked for an NGO [a non-governmental organization] in the late 1990s and told people I was working on trafficking issues, they usually thought I was doing drug trafficking cases. Or some would start telling me about their morning commute issues! That’s what people thought when they heard “trafficking.” Now human trafficking is in the news every single week. That can be exciting. I think it is evidence of progress. Of course, it also presents challenges…how do we ensure that people who want to help understand the complexities of the issue and make a positive contribution?

I do see progress. My students, most of whom are younger than me, provide regular reminders. They get impatient with human rights law, when they so many rights violations happening. Sometimes I tell them it is important to recognize how much progress has happened to get to this point. But they remind me, and they are right, that there is still plenty of work to do. They’re not impressed by the history. They see tens of millions of kids suffering. Both perspectives are valid, and that is one of the fun things about teaching.


So here’s a legal question: if the U.S. has not ratified a human rights treaty, and if we believe that human rights are in fact universal, then do we have legal obligations even if we are not parties to this treaty? Or do we simply have moral obligations?

As individuals, we don’t have legal obligations in the traditional human rights law sense. Human rights law and human rights treaties are structured to place obligations on the state. Individuals, historically, have not been the focus of international law and human rights law. There are exceptions. The Nuremburg trials were about individuals committing crimes against humanity. So there are examples from the 20th century, and now, such as with the International Criminal Court. And customary international law – such as the prohibition on torture – applies universally regardless of whether a country has ratified a treaty.

But treaty law aside, what children’s literature can do, is that it can contribute to the creation of a human rights culture and a rights-respecting ethic. And that is what underlies human rights law, a rights-respecting culture. If you have a culture that respects rights, you have a better chance of having people comply with human rights law.

So yes, the United States is not obligated to abide by the CRC. It won’t be soon. President Obama has not even sent the treaty to the Senate, and the current Senate would be unlikely to support ratification. It’s not likely to move quickly, but there’s no reason that human rights principles can’t guide action. We do that with a lot of other moral and ethical codes. A lot of people use their religious ethics to guide their behavior in their communities, even though their religion is not law. We can do that with human rights. Things like access to education, access to health care, the right to be free from exploitation…these are all issues that most Americans want for children. And they are human rights.


I think you make some good arguments in your book…so now, how do we spread the word? Is there any movement toward some practical steps here, like reaching out to educators, for example, about an elementary human rights curriculum? Could this, or should this be part of the Common Core, or some other larger effort?

We hope that our book is an early step in a conversation that includes teachers and parents at every step. There are human rights educators and organizations like UNICEF that have developed model curriculums and lesson plans. We see our book as hopefully showing that children’s literature offers opportunities to explore human rights issues with children.

Most people are not going to study law, let alone human rights law. But the vast majority of children read or are read children’s literature when growing up. So it’s a built-in space to explore these themes. I am hopeful. What I’d really like to do is create a web-based platform. I’ve just started a new website, which I hope will become a place where people can access or contribute materials and exchange ideas. And I hope these conversations will include youth voices and perspectives.


Random House Books For Young Readers


Your ideas seem like very good sense to me, but then, I am a believer in the human rights framework. I know that some U.S. opposition to human rights treaties lies in a sovereignty argument. Other people have philosophical objections to natural rights generally. (Jeremy Bentham famously called them “nonsense upon stilts”!) Can you see the ideas put forth in your book causing any controversies?

For children’s rights, opposition in the U.S. has focused on two issues: the sovereignty issue and parental rights. On sovereignty, I’ll just note that the U.S. has ratified other human rights treaties without conceding any sovereignty. As to the parental rights argument, there are some who see parental rights and children’s rights as a zero-sum game. I think that misunderstands children’s rights and ignores the language of the CRC, which is very supportive of parents and families. In fact, children’s rights law can be a powerful tool for parents to ensure the well-being of their children. But our book is really about what underlies human rights law and how children learn about their rights and responsibilities. People can disagree on the range of rights each individual has, but if you think rights are inherent, then that means children have rights. Otherwise you are suggesting that the government gives you your rights upon entry into adulthood, but that they are not innate. The early feedback has been positive from people on all points on the political spectrum.

On the literature side, some might express concern that we are saying children’s literature can help educate children about rights. We took care to be clear in the book that we do not think this wonderful imaginative space should simply be co-opted to advance adults’ agendas, even if well-intentioned. But it’s also true that children’s literature has long been used that way, dating back to early stories that conveyed quite clearly that children should be seen and not heard. We want to preserve children’s literature as a space for children. But we are also saying that human rights dialogues are already occurring there, and children see those themes. So we should be aware of that.


So, are you optimistic about the future of human rights law? I know I am very discouraged when I hear about human rights violations being promoted as good public policy: discrimination based on national origin and religion, dissent being considered treason, serious arguments being made for the use of torture, horrific conditions for refugees and asylum seekers around the world…are things getting better or getting worse?

It’s tough. That’s a hard question. There are plenty of days I get discouraged. Maybe there’s a better system out there than the human rights framework. But it hasn’t been created yet. And I think a system based on recognizing that every individual has rights is the best we have. Are there real flaws with the human rights system? Absolutely. Too many governments fail to uphold rights, far too many. I’ve made a choice, and maybe it’s stubbornness or naiveté, but I’m going to stay optimistic.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations in 1990. That year twelve and a half million children under the age of five died, mostly from preventable causes, like malnutrition and dysentery. The most recent data we have, from 2014, puts that figure at under six million. Thus for 6.5 million children, their most valuable right of all, to life and survival, is secured, when a generation ago they wouldn’t have survived.

That progress is not all due to one international human rights treaty; it’s hard to establish that kind of causation. But there’s a correlation. The law changed, cultures changed, behaviors changed. There are now fewer kids out of school. So we do see meaningful progress. Human rights moves way too slowly. Progress is slow. But I choose to remain optimistic. The alternative leads to bad results. If you’re just discouraged, if you give up, what does that lead to? I refuse to give up.

It’s a little like golf. I don’t play golf, but as golfers describe it, 17 holes are terrible, then there’s a beautiful drive on the 18th hole, and that makes them come back. I work on harms to children and lots of cases do not turn out well; they’re tragic and discouraging. But every now and then you get to be part of something that produces a better outcome, and that keeps me coming back.

What do you make of the current humanitarian crises, the war in Syria and the refugees fleeing the violence? Are we seeing those positive trends continue, or are we losing ground with human rights?

I think crises like the one in Syria make it hard to remain optimistic. We’re going to be asked what we asked of the WWII generation. We asked, “how did you let the Holocaust happen?” How did we let Rwanda happen? Now, it’s going to be, “how did you let Syria happen?” I don’t have a good answer. Every day I ask myself why haven’t I done more.

Most of us are not human rights lawyers or in a position to influence policy. What can ordinary people do about these global crises?

On first glance, we might say that no one citizen can stop an atrocity happening 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 miles away. But if we do nothing, that won’t make a difference. I think we need to educate ourselves about global issues and crises, pressure our leaders to do something more immediate to stop such atrocities, and promote tolerance in our own communities and country.

Well, you’re doing more than most.

I’m trying. I’m committed to doing this work. I also do it with a very clear sense that I don’t know how much of a difference I can make. Being a professor provides a platform to do work and weigh in on and influence debates that can make a difference. I also get to work with students who are excited and energized and want to work on human rights issues. I feel privileged to have an opportunity to be part of their journey and to support their efforts. Still, nearly daily I ask myself if I’ve made any difference.


HMH Books For Young Readers


On to another topic, do you have a book recommendation for us? What should everyone read? Can you give us an adult book and a children’s book?

For a children’s book…The Story of Ferdinand. It’s an old one, it’s mentioned in my book.

That one’s about the bull that doesn’t want to fight, right?

Yes. It’s a wonderful identity rights book. There are so many other great children’s stories, but what I’d really like is to have everyone think of their favorite children’s story, and read it again, with a human rights lens, and see what it says about rights and responsibilities. And reach out to me!

I’ll certainly do that!

As I mentioned, we read to students. In some cases, we had adolescents reading books for young children. It was amazing hearing them reflect on their childhood experiences and their current experiences, describing what they thought of the book when they were young kids and how they read the same stories as teenagers.

As for so-called adult books… I’d say Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman. If you like books, it’s a wonderful set of stories about books and reading.

Is there a children’s book that you just plain can’t stand? I know there are a couple I really dislike…

Well, with this project, I’m now very aware of the books I read to my kids. We received a book for infants after our first child was born, something kids could beat up and chew on, with pictures of babies making different facial expressions. The first thing I noticed about the faces and emotions was that all the positive emotions were linked to illustrations of white kids, and the kids with negative emotions, crying, angry, were kids of color.

Was that deliberate, do you think? Or unconscious bias?

Maybe unconscious bias. I had this dilemma. I wasn’t comfortable having my son read it. On top of my personal views, there’s interesting research that infants are aware of difference, so I didn’t want that one around. That book bothers me.

More broadly, I think the impact of a book depends in part on the conversation that comes of out of it. Peter Rabbit can lead to an interesting conversation, as no child speaks in the book. In law school, you can learn from cases with wonderful outcomes and horrible outcomes. Children’s literature can do the same.

Stories that are most exciting are the ones where the story is foregrounded and the message is woven into the story, not beating you over the head. It’s much more interesting if there’s an actual story. Horton Hears a Who is a wonderful story and it turns out he’s your quintessential human rights defender.

I like Horton! He’s in another book, Horton Hatches the Egg, and he’s a prominent character in Seussical, which I saw on Broadway a long time ago. If they bring that one back, take your kids to see it.

Personally, I dislike The Giving Tree…I like Shel Silverstein, but not that one.

That is a sad one. Also Curious George…it’s so sad that he gets sent to jail. Aside from having no due process, he’s not told what he did wrong. How is he supposed to learn? But many kids gravitate to other aspects of his adventures.

I have a friend who is very opposed to Curious George on the grounds that it’s really colonialist and awful. And there’s definitely something to that…the Man in the Yellow Hat goes and takes a monkey out of Africa and brings him to a city. But my kids actually love Curious George.

What excites me is the reaction of kids to the story.


Do you have a favorite movie?

So, I don’t have a favorite movie but I do have a favorite type. I want to be able to laugh, and I want everything to work out at the end. That’s all I want out of a movie. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that’s a good example. When I was young, one of my favorite movies was Breaker Morant. It’s really well done, about a trial, an Australian film about the Boer War, very intense. Now I just want a break and to have fun. A comedy. I want to leave a couple hours later, feeling good. I deal with enough depressing stuff. My wife makes fun of me for that, but she’s the same way. A happy movie is perfect for both of us.


If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

Wow…that threw me completely. I don’t know! I might have taken more vacations earlier in my career. I think I would have started writing earlier. I like the writing process. I like research, it’s a treasure hunt for adults. I would have started that earlier, but I think I thought you had to be an expert to say anything in writing. Clearly it was all pre-social media. But I don’t have any major regrets. I did a lot of the things I wanted to do: I lived overseas on several occasions, served as a Peace Corps volunteer, and was able to do many things I dreamed of. If I had superpowers, I might have spun the globe faster so I could have met my wife earlier.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Learn to let go of things beyond your control. And to be clear, although I was given the advice, I’m sure I don’t always follow it. But when I do, I’m happier. And people around me are probably happier.


Can you tell me a joke?

I joke a lot but it has to be spontaneous. I don’t tell classic jokes!


What’s something most people don’t know about you?

That I listen to a lot of hip hop. Old school hip hop.


What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?

There are certain things I just won’t say out loud. Like a Jewish grandmother. I guess that’s my silliest superstition: I won’t verbalize bad outcomes.


Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

My book…the paperback is coming out this summer. I’d love it if people took a look at it. I’d love more if people read it and started a conversation. It would be great to hear from people about it. I just started creating a space for this with my website, which has a human rights in children’s literature page, with a few articles and related resources. I’ve just started pulling together teaching resources and related materials for people to use to think about how to talk about human rights in a classroom, or in an informal setting.


Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at


Other Q&As By Laura LaVelle

Alexi Auld, author

* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

* Eric Bennett, author

Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park

* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom

* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa

Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers

* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot

Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter

* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur

* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

* Camilla Huey, artist, designer

*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita

* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor

Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor

Jim Knable, playwright and musician

* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department

* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51

* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator

* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate

*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer

* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library

* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York

* Jibrail Nor, drummer

* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America

* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes

* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program

* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists

* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer

* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator

* Patrick Smith, author and pilot

* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author

* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister

* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app

* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher

* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion

* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino

Ekow Yankah, law professor


Lead-In Image of Jonathan Todres Courtesy of Oxford University Press