Scholastic reverses decision to segregate diverse books

After receiving pressure from activists, Scholastic Corporation reversed course on its decision to separate books featuring LGBTQ+ and race-related themes at school book fairs. The initial controversial decision would’ve allowed schools to opt out of providing the collection at their district’s book fairs.

Scholastic has had a rough year. Not only has America’s largest publisher of books for children and young adults been beset by internal power struggles and falling profits, the firm has been facing increasing pressure from right-wing groups.

This pressure, spearheaded by groups such as Moms for Liberty and its allies, has targeted Scholastic because it publishes many books with themes of diversity or features LGBTQ+ characters, books that conservative groups specifically focus on banning from school and public libraries. Additionally, schools in conservative districts in a variety of states have been canceling Scholastic book fairs in a further attempt to prevent this material from reaching students.

Traditionally, Scholastic has offered its books at upwards of 120,000 book fairs conducted at schools, libraries and communities nationwide. However, the tumult in many communities over book banning has complicated matters for the publisher, and the recent spate of book fair cancellations has changed the playing field. In addition, Brave Books, a publisher of Christian children’s books, has begun positioning itself as an alternative to Scholastic. The publisher offers to “help parents instill a love of truth in their children so that the children will be able to withstand harmful progressive influences.”

Scholastic has refrained from commenting publicly on the controversy, especially the book fair cancellations until the company could decide on a course of action to navigate the ongoing culture war controversy. However, the course of action the company decided to take didn’t help. The solution Scholastic decided on has been decried by many progressive right-to-read advocates as, essentially, caving to conservative demands.

For this year’s book fair season, Scholastic inaugurated a new collection titled “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” featuring content that conservatives may find “objectionable.” What was notable was that schools could choose to opt in or opt out of including this collection in their district’s book fair.

This choice triggered criticism for giving schools the choice to remove books about civil rights leaders, major historical figures and marginalized communities, especially in an environment filled with heated debates in local school councils and state legislatures over books that address race, sex and gender identity.

In a statement to the press, Scholastic said, “The biggest misconception is that Scholastic Book Fairs is putting all diverse titles into one optional case. This is not true, in any school, in any location we serve.”

The statement cited enacted or pending legislation in more than 30 states to prohibit certain kinds of books — titles that touch upon LGBTQ+ themes and racism — from being in schools.

“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,” Scholastic said.

The statement continued, “We are committed to providing titles that are representative of the children and communities we serve in every fair, and steadfast in our support of educators who we must not put in jeopardy.” The statement added that customers typically ask about how to bring fairs to their schools, not how to exclude titles. “They are asking us for a path forward, particularly in states with strict legislation.”

Scholastic notes that book fair organizers can still individually order titles in the diversity grouping even if they don’t order the whole unit of diverse books and that parents can order any book online for their children. Scholastic says the overall number of diverse titles it offers this year is “generally the same.”

Scholastic’s response has not mollified the concerns of right-to-read advocates. PEN America, a nonprofit group which monitors book bans, released a statement calling 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.”

“Sequestering books on these topics risks depriving students and families of books that speak to them,” the statement reads. “It will deny the opportunity for all students to encounter diverse stories that increase empathy, understanding, and reflect the range of human experiences and identities which are essential underpinnings of a pluralistic, democratic society.

“In an environment of growing censorship, publishers have a dual obligation to both fight it, and to make books as maximally available as possible.”

In a matter of weeks, the backlash to Scholastic’s decision spurred the company to backtrack on its position. In an unprecedented statement from Scholastic President Ellie Berger, the executive apologized for the decision. The statement reads, in its entirety:

“I want to update you regarding the Book Fairs ‘Share Every Story/Celebrate Every Voice’ case.

“First, I want to apologize on behalf of Scholastic. Even if the decision was made with good intentions, we understand now that it was a mistake to segregate diverse books in an elective case. We sincerely apologize to every author, illustrator, licensor, educator, librarian, parent and reader who was hurt by our action. 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, and we also recognize that we will now need to regain that trust.

“This case will be discontinued starting with our next season in January. For the remaining fairs in the fall, Book Fairs is working on a pivot plan as we speak. We will find an alternate way to get a greater range of books into the hands of children. We remain committed to the books in this collection and support their sale throughout our distribution channels.

“Our commitment to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors and stories remains foundational for our company. Scholastic believes in the basic freedoms of all individuals. We oppose discrimination of any kind on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or national origin. We are committed to providing access and choice, and to helping young readers develop critical skills needed to exercise democracy and build a society free of prejudice and hate. Equally important, we pledge to stand with you as we redouble our efforts to combat the laws restricting children’s access to books. This will not be our last communication on this matter, but we wanted to get this initial word out. We look forward to working to create a better and more just future together.”