Dear John Grisham: Some Things About Asthma

I’ve recently been reading the Theodore Boone series of books by John Grisham. They’re shorter than his typical works, obviously, as they are aimed at the grade 5-8 set (although this in itself for a number of reasons does not seem fitting). However, my gripes aside, they’re interesting books that don’t take days upon days upon weeks for me to read.

The background on Theodore Boone
Theodore aka Theo-not-Teddy Boone is a thirteen-year-old son of two non-criminal lawyers. Theo finds himself in the middle of many legal issues and as a wannabe lawyer provides solicited legal advice to the kids in his grade, mostly. It’s fiction, okay? Occasionally he finds fugitives and locates abducted children and is requested by the municipal judge for advice. You know, the usual.
Eighth-grader Theo has time for legal and political endeavours because he has asthma and can’t play sports. (Yes.)

And thus begins my open letter to John Grisham.

What is an "asthma-condition", exactly?

Dear John Grisham
As an eighth grader, I was a wannabe lawyer myself, like Theodore Boone (I’m a freelance writer now, writing to you indirectly via an asthma website, so that didn’t happen, clearly). Like Theo, I am also terribly inquisitive, and I happen to have asthma—or, as you have written it, “an asthma condition”1, what is that, exactly? In the Theodore Boone series, Theo is described to have all this time to “practice law” and get thrown into in scenarios of unlikely involvement for a thirteen-year-old because he has asthma, and is limited in his sporting pursuits—specifically he is “unable” to play team sports because of his asthma, although cycling and golf are okay, and oddly… tennis as well? I realize this was an easy grab for why he was unable to spend all his after-school time playing club soccer and thus his forays into pint-size lawyer status, however, it paints an unrealistic picture of asthma for the twelve percent of American children who live with this lung disease.

Clarifications on asthma and exercise

In the past, I know some asthmatics were told to avoid exercise. I have searched for a reference for this information, and yet, all I can find is sources on how asthmatics can and do and should exercise, and how many Olympic athletes have asthma, and how to make exercise work with asthma. Searching journals dating back to before 1990, I come upon many articles from the 1970s exploring exercise induced asthma in children, and potential treatments being explored at the time. With the exception of poor air quality days, children in the midst of an acute exacerbation, and outdoors in extremely hot or cold weather, asthmatics are generally encouraged to enjoy all activities their non-asthmatic counterparts do. However, with the first book in the series published in 2011, this is not the data, the science, that is available now.

I realize, Mr. Grisham, that asthma was an easy way to segue into Theo’s childhood career as a kid lawyer. It was an easy out for why he didn’t spend his afternoons and evenings running about Strattenburg and on the soccer field and playing baseball. Yet, instead of simply hating sports, his character’s reason for how he is, is based on one of limitation: that because of asthma, because of a common, treatable lung disease that does not limit most of us, Theo is limited to be great at law instead of great at soccer. In very few scenarios is Theo’s asthma mentioned—when he pulls out an inhaler in a moment of great stress (and perhaps some exertion)2, this is another misconception about asthma affirmed in these books: that it is triggered solely by emotion (and exercise).

Thank you for making a character who is like me and millions of kids and adults worldwide—one who does awesome things with asthma. But please, in the future, don’t let your characters use asthma as a cop-out, and portray this disease accurately. I’d be happy to share my experience and the research I’ve done the next time asthma appears in your storyline.

Looking forward,
Kerri MacKay

PS. If you’re actually reading this, Mr. Grisham, let’s chat.

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