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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Margaret Sullivan

Scholastic Books should stop buckling to rightwing bullies

‘By all means, do not expose young people to these heroic figures of American history. They might never recover from the trauma.’
‘By all means, do not expose young people to these heroic figures of American history. They might never recover from the trauma.’ Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

The largest US publisher of books for children has a new collection that sounds wonderful. It’s called “Share every story, celebrate every voice”.

But the backstory isn’t so wonderful.

School librarians around the country can opt out of that Scholastic Books collection of 64 “diverse” books for their popular book fairs.

They can choose to hit what one librarian has called “the bigot button” in order to stay out of the line of fire of rightwing parents and politicians. Presumably to pre-emptively placate the anti-woke mobs, the opt-out effectively removes the curated collection of “diverse” books from the offerings.

One example is this title: Justice Ketanji, by Denise Lewis Patrick, which tells the story of how Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to serve as a US supreme court justice. The brief biography details how Jackson “refused to let the naysayers stop her from rising to the top”.

Cover the children’s eyes immediately!

Another, which depicts same-sex parents and interracial families living in peace and harmony with others is All Are Welcome, by Alexandra Penfold. Sure to poison young minds, right?

Or how about Because of You, John Lewis, by Andrea Davis Pinkney? It’s the tale of a boy who becomes inspired by the late Georgia congressman’s decades-long struggle for rights. It focuses on Lewis’s role in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a key milestone in the civil rights movement.

Another, I Am Ruby Bridges, is a picture book whose author was in 1960 the first Black child to integrate a school in Louisiana.

By all means, do not expose young people to these heroic figures of American history. They might never recover from the trauma.

After some negative national publicity and protests by authors and librarians, Scholastic Books defended itself by saying that it had been forced into this decision. They claim they did it to protect teachers and libraries in regions that may have regulations – or even just proposed regulations – prohibiting specific types of books.

“These laws 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 publisher wrote in a recent public statement. “We cannot make a decision for our school partners around what risks they are willing to take.”

It’s a weak argument. Even in these absurd times, it seems extremely unlikely that state or local governments would fire or sue librarians or volunteers for putting these books on tables for potential purchase.

Independent journalist Judd Legum was able to identify many of the titles, even though Scholastic declined to release a list. And he notes that even the most restrictive of school districts, which may object to classroom instruction about critical race theory, aren’t trying to keep books about historical figures out of school libraries.

“A political stunt by a corporation prioritizing activism over the well-being of children,” was how a spokeswoman for the Florida education department characterized the move to the New York Times. And Florida, after all, is ground zero for wokeness alerts.

This is ill-advised overkill by Scholastic’s bean-counters who want to minimize conflict and maximize profits. And, in doing so, are participating in a kind of censorship.

PEN America, the free-expression organization, rightly called on Scholastic to “reject any role in accommodating these nefarious laws”.

Until this episode, I had the warmest feelings toward Scholastic Books. As a schoolkid, I loved getting that tissue-thin pamphlet of book offerings from my teacher and starting to make my choices. I would bring some ridiculously small amount of money to class – often, the order came to something like $2.35. And then came the agonizing wait.

Decades later, my grade-school children enjoyed an updated ritual when we attended Scholastic’s book fairs, which began in 1981.

Yes, I always thought of Scholastic as a bibliophile’s paradise. But the truth is that Scholastic Books is not your neighborhood bookseller.

It’s a publicly traded company worth over a billion dollars – and it doesn’t want any trouble at the 120,000 book fairs it runs each year.

There is one bright side to this mess. Since there’s nothing like forbidding a book to excite a child’s interest, Scholastic’s ham-handed move is sure to generate sales for the very books it has made less accessible.

Don’t you know of a kid who might be tempted to learn about John Lewis, Ruby Bridges or Ketanji Brown Jackson – especially if they know these books are off limits?

I can think of a few. And, as the T-shirt says, I’m with the banned.

  • Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist writing on media, politics and culture

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