What is the "near libel" which Jem puts in the front yard in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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In chapter 8, Maycomb experiences extremely cold weather, and it snows for the first time since 1885. School is canceled due to inclement weather and Jem decides to build a snowman. Unfortunately, there is not enough snow to make a traditional snowman and Jem is forced to improvise. Jem and Scout gather the thin layer of snow from Miss Maudie's yard in baskets and use dirt for the base of their snowman. As Jem is forming the snowman, he succeeds in making the sculpture resemble their overweight neighbor, Mr. Avery. After Jem uses bits of wood for the snowman's eyes, nose, mouth, and buttons, Scout says that her brother successfully makes the snow figure of Mr. Avery "look cross."

When Atticus returns home from work, he takes one look at Jem's creation and sees that the snowman resembles Mr. Avery. Atticus responds to Jem's relatively realistic snow sculpture in legal terms by saying, "'You’ve perpetrated a near libel here in the front yard'" (Lee, 69). Libel is a legal term that applies to a false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation. After joking with his son, Atticus instructs Jem to disguise the snowman so that it no longer resembles Mr. Avery. Jem follows his father's instructions and ends up creating a snowman that resembles Miss Maudie.

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Excited by their first sight of snow, Jem and Scout busily begin building their first snowman in the front yard. They soon recognized that there wouldn't be enough snow for a full-sized snowman, so Jem came up with a novel idea: He would use the hard, wet mud for the inside, and use the meager amount of snow on the outside. At first, the snowman looked like Miss "Stephanie Crawford with her hands on her hips." With "his eyes twinkling," Jem decided to alter its appearance to look like their neighbor, Mr. Avery, since he was "sort of shaped like a snowman." Atticus loved their creation, and he

... squinted at the snowman a while. He grinned, then laughed... You've perpetrated a near libel here in the front yard. We've got to disguise this fellow... You can't go around making caricatures of the neighbors."

It was Atticus's way of explaining the problem in a legal sense. The snowman looked so much like Mr. Avery that he knew others would recognize it--as well as Mr. Avery--and be amused, at the expense of their neighbor. So, Jem added Miss Maudie's sunhat and a pair of hedge-clippers, and soon the Mr. Avery snowman was recognizable. When Miss Maudie saw it, she unknowingly gave it a new name: The Morphodite snowman.

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