Author, Publisher at Odds Over Content of Talk

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A popular children’s author has set off a heated discussion on Internet blogs and listservs after posting on her Web site charges that a publisher canceled her contract to appear at a national reading conference to censor her criticism of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The publisher, SRA/McGraw-Hill, has fired back, saying that the author, Patricia Polacco, is at fault, and that the planned sessions on writing children’s books were an inappropriate venue for policy discussions.

Patricia Polacco

Ms. Polacco, a Union City, Mich.-based author of more than three dozen picture books and short novels for children, was hired by the McGraw-Hill Cos. to conduct workshops for teachers at the International Reading Association convention, held April 30 to May 4 in Chicago. The appearances, scheduled for the publisher’s exhibit booth, were intended to inspire teachers to take part in SRA/McGraw-Hill’s national writing contest. Winners of the contest will have their children’s stories and poems published in one of the company’s reading programs.

Ms. Polacco said she was asked last month by a publisher’s consultant to exclude her views on the federal law. She refused to alter her presentation, which she said includes her assessment of the law as “a damaging force within our public schools.” The publisher subsequently canceled the $5,000 contract.

In the days prior to the convention, Ms. Polacco posted her own explanation for the cancellation on her Web site,

“This [consulting firm] insisted that my speech be ‘upbeat, noncontroversial, and nonpolitical,’ ” she wrote. “I countered with the fact that the plight of the American teacher is far from ‘upbeat,’ and they are caught in the vice grip of the most controversial and political LIE that has ever been perpetrated on the American teacher.”

Off Topic?

Officials of the New York City-based SRA/McGraw-Hill said they canceled the four sessions featuring the author after determining that Ms. Polacco did not intend to stick closely to the intended topic of writing for children.

“SRA is sponsoring a writing contest for teachers, and all the presentations in the booth were on writing and writing children’s books,” April Hattori, a spokeswoman for McGraw-Hill, said last week. “We respect everyone’s ideas on this topic [of federal education mandates], … but those sessions were not an appropriate platform for talking about policy.”

Officials with the International Reading Association said agreements between publishers and individuals are a private matter, and that the attendance of conference-goers at the exhibit hall and commercial sessions is voluntary.

“When someone agrees to speak on behalf of a commercial product, the company is likely to want some control over the content of the presentation, and that is what appears to have happened here,” IRA Executive Director Alan E. Farstrup said in a statement.

Ms. Polacco, who does not use a computer, said in an interview that the dispute arose out of her own confusion over the sponsorship of four presentations she was asked to deliver. She said she signed the printed version of the contract without seeing the cover page, the company letterhead, or the initial e-mail correspondence sent to her staff, who oversee the Web site. She thought the agreement was with the Newark, Del.-based IRA. Only later, when she was asked to provide a draft of her comments, did she realize the presentation was being sponsored by SRA/McGraw-Hill, she said.

The author intended to deliver one of her prepared speeches, titled “The Heroes of My Life,” in which she acknowledges the family members and teachers who inspired her. In her other presentations, the author discusses the real-life events that sparked the stories in her books. In both presentations, she said, she sympathizes with teachers and expresses her distaste for the federal mandates.

“All along, I was going to do those performances with the information about the NCLB mandate. … But it is only a casual mention of NCLB; it isn’t a drooling diatribe,” she said. “I asked them why on Earth would you invite me to represent you in any way if they were so sensitive to [the negative part of the message].”

Controlling the Message

The publisher, which sells several commercial reading programs and assessments that are used under the No Child Left Behind Act, believed that the author was an appropriate choice for the sessions, Ms. Hattori said.

“She is a widely respected and very talented writer, and the stories behind her books are very much in line with the whole writing theme behind the contest.”

The author and the publisher are in a dispute over who is at fault for the cancellation. Ms. Polacco said she should be paid, while Ms. Hattori said the author failed to honor her contract and would not be paid.

“I don’t know if legally this is censorship,” said Ms. Polacco. “But it is certainly arrogance and an attempt at trying to control what an author says to an audience.”

Vol. 25, Issue 38, Pages 12-13

Published in Print: May 24, 2006, as Author, Publisher at Odds Over Content of Talk
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