Reading & Literacy

Scholastic Reverses Controversial Decision to ‘Segregate’ Diverse Books

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 25, 2023 7 min read
Scholastic reversed its decision to silo books about LGBTQ+ characters and people of color into an optional collection starting next January, based on feedback from authors and illustrators.
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Scholastic is reversing its decision to allow schools to exclude a collection of books about LGBTQ+ characters and Black characters when hosting its book fairs.

The children’s book publisher said that it was a mistake to segregate books about diversity and that, starting in January, the collection will not be offered at book fairs at all, according to a statement Scholastic issued on Oct. 25 that EdWeek obtained.

“We understand now that the separate nature of the collection has caused confusion and feelings of exclusion,” the statement says. “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.”

Ellie Berger, Scholastic’s president, sent the letter to authors and illustrators, committing to finding “an alternate way to get a greater range of books into the hands of children.”

Scholastic initially attributed the optional collection to pending and proposed laws restricting what books students can and can’t read in 30 states, according to a statement released last week.

Four public school librarians and two literacy experts previously told EdWeek that they found the publisher’s initial decision to group those titles into an optional collection disheartening, especially considering that the company had previously spoken out against the proliferation of challenges and bans across the country, largely related to books about race, racism, and LGBTQ+ characters, which have been on the rise for the past two years.

The reversal of the decision was a step in the right direction, the librarians and experts said.

“Scholastic recognized that, as difficult a bind as this pernicious legislation created, the right answer was not to become an accessory to censorship. Scholastic is an essential source of knowledge and a delight for countless children,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program in a statement to EdWeek. PEN America is a free speech organization that tracks book bans nationwide.

“We are glad to see them champion the freedom to read.”

Royel Johnson, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, said that how Scholastic proceeds will determine its commitment to diverse books.

“In a time where access to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors and stories is under constant threat and erasure, it is more important than ever for publishers like Scholastic to be firm on their commitments to DEI and not sway to political pressures,” he said. “This reversal is promising, but how they move forward is the real test.”

Books about diversity still available at Scholastic fairs

Last week, when Scholastic announced the decision to isolate the 64 titles related to stories about fictional Black characters such as Black Panther and activists such as Malala Yousafzai and Ruby Bridges, as well as LGBTQ+ characters, the company attributed the decision to “enacted and pending legislation in more than 30 U.S. states prohibiting certain kinds of books from being in schools—mostly LGBTQIA+ titles and books that engage with the presence of racism in our country,” according to that announcement.

Whether the 64 titles will be featured in book fairs once the optional collection is dissolved next January is unclear, but Scholastic is now figuring out how to make diverse titles available at book fairs without the additional collection, Anne Sparkman, the vice president of corporate communications for Scholastic, said in an update on Wednesday.

In a previous interview, Sparkman said even without the optional collection, Scholastic still offers books about neurodiversity, physical diversity, people of color, and by authors and illustrators of color throughout the fair.

“There is diversity of many different types of representation throughout the entire fair; it is not that all of the diverse titles are in this one collection,” she said.

“It’s just that this collection is the starting point with the [books] most likely to be legislated, and then it was filled out with additional diversity,” she said about the so-called “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” collection.

How state laws can impact school book fairs

Despite Scholastic holding state laws and bills responsible for making the diverse collection optional, only three states had passed legislation that dictate the kinds of books schools can make available to students as of May 2023: Florida, Missouri, and Utah.

However, directly or indirectly, these laws have led to thousands of book bans and now are impacting a large publisher such as Scholastic, which runs book fairs in all 50 states, according to Kasey Meehan, the freedom to read program director at PEN America.

In most states, Scholastic was “accommodating something that hasn’t happened and probably won’t happen,” said Debby Vandersande, an elementary school librarian from Fairfax County, Va., who has been organizing Scholastic books fairs for 15 years.

“And in the places where there is legislation, the librarian can pull [a book] to protect themselves as they really need to, but it’s not the publishers and booksellers’ job to not provide it and to accommodate this type of censorship,” she said.

Missouri’s law, passed in 2022, has resulted in hundreds of book removals, both temporary and permanent. A provision in the law specifically bans any depiction or description of sexually explicit material, which can apply to graphic novels or picture books, too, depending on how districts interpret the measure. It can also potentially apply to book fairs, said Thom Bober, a librarian at Ralph M. Captain Elementary School in Missouri and the president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians.

However, librarians have done their due diligence to understand the law and remove from fairs any books that may fall under the ban, Bober said.

“School librarians are still the most responsible to make those clear decisions about whether a particular book is in violation of a specific law,” he said.

A step in the right direction

Four librarians EdWeek spoke with said they were initially concerned that making optional books representing historically marginalized students would send a message that censorship is the right decision.

All four said Scholastic’s reversal of the optional collection was a step in the right direction and should be attributed to the objections authors, illustrators, and librarians raised when they heard about the optional collection.

“The turnaround was swift, and I’m thankful to every author, illustrator, publisher, and librarian that spoke out against Scholastic’s decision to make this change happen,"Bober said.

“I’m glad the priority for students’ right to read a diverse selection of books exists.”

Vandersande and Amanda Jones, a librarian from Louisiana, said the “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” collection did not need to be completely removed from book fairs.

“They could have just sent the case without it being ‘opt in.’ And nobody would have been alarmed,” Vandersande said.

“But it is best practice to not separate ‘diverse’ books because it makes them an ‘other.’”

The reversal shows that Scholastic is on the same page as librarians and is focused on making all kinds of books available to students, said Barbara Johnson, a librarian from Connecticut and a past president of the Connecticut Association of School Librarians.

“I hope all publishers stand with librarians and help combat legislative efforts to ban and restrict books,” she said.

“I think the lesson learned is that we’re all on the same team on getting books into the hands of children who need them.”

Some librarians may still distance themselves from Scholastic fairs

Jones had previously cancelled her school’s Scholastic fair following the announcement about the optional collection.

“It sent a message to me that Black voices need to be segregated and opted into, and that’s not something I want to be associated with,” she said.

Now, she’s waiting to hear from the authors and illustrators who were impacted before she makes a final decision.

Bober’s school has already stopped using Scholastic, because other vendors have been more responsive to the requests for diversity in their book fair offerings, among other reasons.

“As librarians begin to see the selections that Scholastic offers, and the diversity of that selection will be able to tell whether the company is providing a wide variety of books for all readers to choose from,” he said about future fairs.

Vandersande will keep using Scholastic for her school’s fairs, primarily because students in her district benefit from the large selection of $3 books they can buy there and the school raises enough money through profit sharing with Scholastic to buy books for any students that could not partake in the fair, she said.

She said she feels much better about the decision to partner with the publisher after it reversed its decision.

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