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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Scholastic reverses course on segregating ‘diverse’ book fair titles

By Praveena Somasundaram, Hannah Natanson and Kim Bellware Washington Post

Scholastic has backtracked on its decision to separate dozens of books focused on race and LGBTQ+ themes into an optional collection for this year’s elementary school book fairs after weeks of criticism from authors, illustrators and library advocates who decried the move as self-censorship.

The course change was announced by Scholastic Trade Publishing President Ellie Berger in a letter sent Tuesday to authors and illustrators. Berger called the decision to segregate diverse books “a mistake” and issued an apology to the company’s clients, librarians, parents and readers who were “hurt by our action,” according to a copy obtained by the Washington Post.

Anne Sparkman, a spokesperson for Scholastic, said in a statement Wednesday that the company now understands that separating the collection “has caused confusion and feelings of exclusion” and that the company was searching for a more inclusive way forward.

“As we reconsider how to make our Book Fairs available to all kids, we will keep in mind the needs of our educators facing local content restrictions and the children we serve,” Sparkman wrote.

The publisher will discontinue the 64-book “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” collection in January and is making a plan for the book fairs scheduled for the rest of the year, according to Sparkman.

When Scholastic rolled out the change in August, schools could decide whether to sell or exclude the “diverse titles” in the collection at their fairs – an approach the company billed as a way to offer the books without violating legislation against them.

But the decision met with sharp criticism from educators, authors and advocacy groups concerned about censorship in schools. Among the 64 titles in the optional collection were ones related to prominent Americans and U.S. history, including “Justice Ketanji,” a biography of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson; “Because of You, John Lewis,” a story book about an activist’s friendship with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; “I Am Ruby Bridges” by the activist herself; and “Change Sings,” a picture book by poet and activist Amanda Gorman.

Gorman in a video posted to X – the social media platform formerly known as Twitter – last week called the exclusion of beloved books by a respected publisher “heartbreaking.”

“Because I was that little 8-, 9-year-old kid saving up every single penny I had all year so I could go to the book fair – not to buy any book, but to finally buy a book with characters and voices that looked like me and sounded like me as a Black girl with a speech impediment.”

More than 1,500 authors and illustrators signed a petition last week calling on Scholastic to end the “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” program, decrying the segregation of diverse titles as “harmful and wrong.”

Berger, the Scholastic president, apologized to authors and illustrators in her Tuesday letter.

“We recognize and acknowledge the pain caused, and that we have broken the trust of some of our publishing community, customers, friends, trusted partners, and staff,” Berger wrote. “And we also recognize that we will now need to regain that trust.”

Jonathan Friedman of PEN America, a free speech advocacy group that had condemned the original decision to create the optional case, said in a statement Tuesday evening that the organization was glad to see Scholastic “resume” its “rightful role as champions of the freedom to read.”

“Scholastic recognized that, as difficult a bind as this pernicious legislation created, the right answer was not to become an accessory to censorship,” said Friedman, director of the Free Expression and Education program at PEN America.

Scholastic’s controversial decision and reversal come 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.

In her statement, Sparkman called the current landscape in which children’s books in the United States can be banned and teachers can be penalized for providing them “divisive” and “unsettling,” but said Scholastic remained optimistic.

“By listening to those who share our mission – we have successfully piloted our way through past difficult periods,” Sparkman said, “and we will do so successfully again.”