The Lawyers of Children’s Literature

I recently reconnected with a childhood friend on Facebook, and she reminded me that, at the age of ten, I was already telling anyone who asked that I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up. As it turns out, I became a law professor, but I remain a paid-up (albeit non-practicing) member of the Saskatchewan Bar, so mission accomplished, more or less. The focus of this post, though, is not the attainment of the goal but what inspired it. Where did I get the idea that a lawyer was a thing to be, and what sort of work did I envision a lawyer doing?

There are two of us now, but back then there were no lawyers in my family, or even in my family history. (Recent genealogical research has confirmed the latter perception. I’ve turned up shepherds, coalminers, steelworkers, carpenters, calico printers, tailors, domestic servants, schoolteachers, and even one errant phrenologist, but no lawyers.) Nor were there any lawyers amongst the family members of my friends. My childhood pre-dated the heyday of television legal dramas, so I don’t think that I can locate the inspiration there. I might have caught the odd Perry Mason rerun, but I was already in law school by the time L.A. Law and Street Legal arrived on the small screen.

So I can only conclude that, as is true of many of my good ideas, it came from books. But which books? Who are the lawyers of children’s literature? I have thought long and hard about my childhood reading, particularly beloved repeat reads, and I can recall only two fictional lawyers that got more than a passing mention.

The first appears in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. The novel details the adventures of eleven-year-old Claudia Kincaid when, feeling underappreciated, she runs away from her suburban Connecticut home with her nine-year-old brother Jamie in tow, and takes up residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But the tale is not told by either of the youthful protagonists; the book is narrated by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an elderly, eccentric patron of the arts, in the form of a letter to Saxonberg, her lawyer of 41 years, instructing him to change her will and explaining why she wishes him to do so. Throughout, Mrs. Frankweiler represents Saxonberg as no friend of the arts. He’s dull and boring, caring only for law, taxes, and his grandchildren. He’s “never set [his] well-polished toe inside that museum,” and is “altogether unconscious of the magic of Michelangelo.” Though it is apparent by the end that this is not an entirely accurate picture, it nevertheless renders Saxonberg an unlikely role model for my ten-year-old self who had artistic as well as legal aspirations. I might credit the book with stoking my interest in museums and art galleries, and certainly with contributing to the fascination that New York City held for me decades before I ever traveled there. But I rule it out as an early impetus to pursue a legal career.

That leaves Carson Drew, “well-known lawyer,” and father to teenage sleuth Nancy Drew. But surely, I thought, Carson Drew played only a bit part in the series, keeping well in the background as parents are wont to do in children’s literature to accord child characters plenty of room for independent action. Not so, I found after a bit of rereading. Certainly he doesn’t get in the way of Nancy’s independence⎯she whisks about the countryside in that enviable blue convertible with his blessing. But he’s a solid presence and his legal work is far from an incidental detail. On the first page of the first installment of the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, we’re told that he “frequently discussed puzzling aspects of cases with [Nancy],” and thereafter we find that her investigations are sometimes undertaken to assist in his work. Even when her cases are not connected with his, they tend to focus on legal matters (wills, trusts, contracts, and patents, alongside the more readily anticipated counterfeiting, theft, and kidnapping), and legal information or advice from him or one of his colleagues often proves pivotal in solving the mysteries. Further, when her father praises her investigative prowess, the compliments are sometimes couched in legal terms. “‘You sound like a trial lawyer, the way you cross-examine me,’ Mr. Drew protested, but with evident enjoyment.” And later: “Excellent deducting.”

Perhaps, then, I fancied that lawyers’ work involved Nancy Drew style investigation but with a paycheque attached, and I really ought to have set my sights on a career as a private detective. If it was Nancy rather than Carson Drew who served as primary role model and inspiration, then I’m in good legal company, standing with the likes of U.S. Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Still, I can’t help but think that for me, and perhaps for them too, the legal aspect contributed to the allure.

But the notable lawyers of children’s literature must number more than two. Who have I missed? Please share any names that occur to you in the comments section below.

9 Comments

  • April 1, 2011 - 1:28 pm | Permalink

    if you find any women lawyers in kids lit, i’ll:
    a. buy the book and
    b. xpost on IFLS 😉

  • Harold Johnson
    April 1, 2011 - 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure if “To Kill a Mockingbird” would be classified as a children’s book But I did read it when I was about 8. My older sister had left it and in my hunger to read I devoured it. There weren’t many books of any kind in Molanosa Saskatchewan in the early 60’s and there certainly was a shortage of children or even Juvenile books.
    I hope that “To Kill a Mockingbird” did not influence my decision to become a lawyer. I am much happier with the rationalization that the decision was a result of serendipity.

  • Kate Sutherland
    April 1, 2011 - 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Sonia,

    I recently reread some 70s YA classics, and it was not uncommon in that era for there to be mentions of the mothers of the protagonists returning to school to study law (for example, in M.E. Kerr’s Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! and also, I think, at the end of Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit), but I can’t recall any women depicted practicing law. There must be some though, particularly in more recent books. I will put out a call on Twitter and see if any suggestions are forthcoming!

    Harold,

    I thought of To Kill A Mockingbird. I didn’t read it as a child, but still quite early on in a high school English class. I don’t have a very strong memory of it though, and am quite keen to reread it to see what I think of it now, particularly in light of an article I read recently that challenges the conventional “law & literature” view of Atticus Finch as a crusader for justice, and paints him instead as an apologist for racism, so perhaps not such a good lawyer role model!

  • April 1, 2011 - 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I love the YA books Quid Pro Quo & Res Judicata by Vicki Grant. Cyril’s mother has gone to law school and taken him with her to all her classes as she couldn’t afford a babysitter… so he knows quite a bit about the law as well. They are very funny, aimed at ages 10-14.

  • Kim Brooks
    April 2, 2011 - 1:07 pm | Permalink

    How about The Judge: an Untrue Tale by Harve Zemach, marvellous pictures by Margot Zemach. See here: http://us.macmillan.com/thejudge

  • Dan Booth
    April 2, 2011 - 10:09 pm | Permalink

    There are two in The Westing Game: Edgar Plum, who administers the will that is the engine of the book’s plot, and Judge Josie Ford, who is on the state Supreme Court.

  • Sheila Kerr
    April 6, 2011 - 12:52 am | Permalink

    Dickens! Chancery! (Perhaps this is why it took me 40 odd years to discover that I wanted to be a lawyer…)

  • May 30, 2011 - 12:55 am | Permalink

    I know I am very late to add something here, but I can’t help myself because it’s such an interesting question (with such interesting answers). The lawyers I encountered as a child were all from books — in fact, from a series of books called something like Childhoods of Famous Americans. I loved those books. And about 3/4 of the people in them were kids who eventually became lawyers. I mean, they were lawyers who became presidents, supreme court justices, freedom fighters… The women, though, weren’t lawyers. They were people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Dolly Madison (is she the one who sewed the first flag?) I didn’t notice, and so wasn’t at all put off by the fact that all the lawyers seemed to be men. Maybe because all the famous americans were my age, so none of them were (a) men or (b) lawyers yet. And so when I was in the 4th grade, I wrote in my journal: “I am going to be a lawyer. And then the President.” I’m half way there.

  • Karen Pearlston
    November 9, 2011 - 10:40 am | Permalink

    I have just come across this thread. I recall a wonderful book by Louise Fitzhugh (author of Harriet the Spy) called Nobody’s Family is Going to Change (1974). There is a good synopsis here: http://toveyjones.com/harriet/?page_id=58

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *