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Scholastic isolates ‘diverse titles’ at book fairs as challenges spike

Civil rights activist and author Ruby Bridges joins students from the Roybal School of Film and Television Production Magnet for a Q&A at Roybal Learning Center on Feb. 16 in Los Angeles.  (Vivien Killilea)
By Praveena Somasundaram and Hannah Natanson Washington Post

It’s a time beloved by students across the country – when the Scholastic Book Fair’s colorful displays and shelves on wheels are set up and students can browse and buy what they like.

But this year, some elementary school students won’t be able to find certain books on those shelves.

Scholastic is separating dozens of books focused on race and LGBTQ+ themes into a collection that elementary schools can decide whether to offer or exclude from their book fairs, the publisher announced in a statement Friday.

Named “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice,” the collection features 64 books on topics such as racism and gender identity, titles that have been targeted by conservative legislators across the country in recent years.

Scholastic created the collection to offer “diverse titles” at its book fairs in a way that would not violate those laws, which the publisher said “create an almost impossible dilemma: back away from these titles or risk making teachers, librarians, and volunteers vulnerable to being fired, sued, or prosecuted.”

The 64 titles in Scholastic’s optional collection include stories of prominent figures of the civil rights movement and accounts of significant moments in U.S. history, including Andrea Davis Pinkney’s “Because of You, John Lewis,” Colin Kaepernick’s “I Color Myself Different” and “I Am Ruby Bridges,” written by the activist herself.

Though Scholastic emphasized that not all “diverse titles” were put into the optional collection, the change to the cherished book fairs brought sharp criticism from educators, authors and advocacy groups who are concerned about censorship in schools.

PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, condemned the publisher’s move in a statement Tuesday.

“We call on Scholastic to explore other solutions so they can reject any role in accommodating these nefarious laws and local pressures, or being an accessory to government censorship,” the group said.

Scholastic said in its own statement that the alternative would have been to not offer the titles altogether – an option it said “is not something we’d consider.”

“We don’t pretend this solution is perfect,” Scholastic said.

The change does not affect Scholastic’s middle school book fairs, according to the company. Elementary schools can decide to display some or all of the collection or opt out of it entirely.

Though the publisher did not provide specific data, “thousands” of book fairs across all 50 states have included the collection since August, Scholastic spokesperson Anne Sparkman said in an email to the Washington Post.

Scholastic’s decision comes as school districts nationwide are facing a historic surge in book challenges. The number of objections brought against school books broke records in 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association, which has tracked such challenges for more than two decades.

A Washington Post analysis of more than 2,500 pages of school book challenges filed nationwide in the 2021-22 school year showed that the majority target books by and about LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color. And the majority of those challenges, 60%, came from just 11 adults, the Post found.

At the same time, state laws and school district policies restricting school libraries and librarians are proliferating. By the start of the last school year, at least a half-dozen states had enacted laws giving parents more power over which books appear in libraries or limiting students’ access to books, and, in recent years, at least seven states have adopted laws threatening librarians with imprisonment for providing “obscene” or “harmful” books to children.

On X, formerly known as Twitter, cartoonist and graphic novel author Molly Knox Ostertag shared that she had sent a message to Scholastic lamenting the new policy.

“I feel the need to stand up tonight and say that I think this is a grave miscalculation,” Ostertag wrote to Scholastic officials. “It doesn’t come across as anything but an attempt to compromise with, frankly, fascist laws.”

Earlier this month, Scholastic had joined PEN America, the American Library Association and other organizations in signing an open letter during Banned Books Week. The letter advocated for making books publicly accessible and keeping “political pressure, threats, or intimidation” out of schools and libraries.

In its statement Tuesday, PEN America blamed lawmakers and activists for putting Scholastic “in an impossible bind” but urged the company to fight censorship attempts.

Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s CEO, said some books on Scholastic’s optional titles list – including “Justice Ketanji,” a picture book about the life of Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to become a Supreme Court justice – are crucial to helping children feel empowered and accepted, as students can “see themselves or a family like theirs” within them.

“You really have to wonder what exactly does somebody think could conceivably be objectionable about this book?” Nossel said.

Like Scholastic, textbook and educational publishers nationwide are now navigating a minefield, forced to spend months in lengthy, tense negotiations with education departments and school officials while sales plunge.

Those publishers are facing pressure particularly in states such as Texas and Florida, which are large markets but also have more stringent book restrictions, Nossel said.

“The question of what changes may be made to the books for those states or are there changes that are being made to the books that are being distributed nationally to avoid legal issues and quandaries in certain parts of the country – so I think it’s something we should be very concerned with,” she said.

At the end of its statement, Scholastic reaffirmed its commitment to stories representative of “ALL voices.”

“All children need to see themselves in stories and it is extremely unsettling to consider a world in which they don’t,” its statement said.