[ teaching & learning ]

Saranac Lake teacher helps author get book to the very community that inspired it


hen English teacher Kelsey Francis read Demon Copperhead last winter, she was blown away. “It resonated so much for me. It reminded me of some of my former students.”

Francis, a member of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association, knew she wanted to share the book with colleagues, and she pitched the idea of forming a Demon Copperhead book club to a district administrator.

“I thought I would get a few English teachers and a librarian,” said Francis. Instead, 75 educators heeded the call. “I was astonished.”

Due to the idea’s immense popularity, the district used grant funds to purchase copies for all the book club participants. The educators read the novel over the summer and met to discuss it in the fall.

They had lots to talk about.

Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield. In the novel, the title character, Demon, is born into generational poverty. After his teenage mother dies of a drug overdose, he is shunted into a tottering foster system. Then, after a sports injury, he develops an opioid addiction that almost breaks him.

The story was intensely familiar to Francis. Six of her former students have died of drug overdoses. “When I read this book, I saw the seeds of some of their stories,” she said.

Members of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association’s Demon Copperhead book club gathered in grass in front of Saranac Lake High School


Members of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association’s Demon Copperhead book club.

Francis also recognized similarities between rural Saranac Lake and Lee, the Appalachian town in Virginia where Demon Copperhead is situated. Like Lee, Saranac Lake is a beautiful mountain community that has been stripped of its resources and sidelined by the global economy, Francis said. Housing costs are high, and access to health care is limited. In her small school district, a whopping 47 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 1 percent are unhoused, and 1 percent are in foster care. The district also suffers from elevated levels of chronic absenteeism.

During the book club, Saranac Lake teachers, nurses, counselors, TAs, administrators and coaches shared their experiences with students like Demon: students who hate school, who have been let down by the systems designed to protect them and failed by the adults who are supposed to help.

“Every single bit of feedback I got was ‘This work was so much more relevant than anything else I could have read,’” Francis said. “The book presents an enormously nuanced picture of students’ lives. They are not just the kid who is sitting in front of you. They carry these enormous invisible backpacks (of personal trauma and history) with them every day. It gives you a deeper tenderness for them.”

Profoundly affected by the novel and the experience of reading it with her community, Francis reached out to the book’s author to thank her and to tell her about the book club.

Demon Copperhead book cover
Two months later, she received a reply. Kingsolver needed her help.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author explained that her publisher, Harper, secured copies of the novel for the Lee County High School AP English class — the very school where her novel is set — but they were confiscated before students could read them. She asked Francis if she would be willing to contact the school board to appeal their book ban.

“It seems so shocking, and ironic, that these educators can’t see the relevance of this book in their school system. I wonder if they might be swayed by whatever arguments you — a professional educator — used to convince your peers that Demon Copperhead could be useful to their professional understanding of their most challenged kids,” wrote Kingsolver.

“I was stunned that she would see me as someone who could help her, and I just felt so honored,” Francis said. “I wrote to the superintendent of schools and told him that I believed his AP students deserved to read this, and that he should also consider having his staff read it.”

Her advocacy, along with impassioned statements to the school board from Kingsolver and other supporters, seems to have changed some minds, as the books were made available for the students to read.

Francis hopes more schools will follow Saranac Lake’s example and use the novel as a professional development opportunity.

“If we can talk about these issues — if we can allow our students to talk about these issues and bring them out into the open — that’s the only way we are going to solve them.”