By Leigh Patel
As child in elementary school, I distinctly remember being excited every time my teacher passed around the Scholastic Magazine. The paper of the magazine was thin, like newsprint. I’d fold the corners of the pages that had books I was interested in. Many times, I didn’t see anything and folded zero corners of the pages. It would be some time before I came to understand and question the power of a large corporation and its selection of what books it deemed worthy, in essence, to sell to young readers, teachers, and schools.
In October, Scholastic issued a statement to its authors and illustrators, detailing the corporation’s decision to create a separate section of their book fairs where books that included characters and issues related to sexuality, gender, and race could be found. How a book is determined to include race as part of its content, and another doesn’t, eludes the fact that racism is a category created to deliver relative privilege and risk to human beings. In their statement to authors and illustrators, Scholastic framed their decision to segregate books as a way of supporting “an almost impossible dilemma: back away from these titles or risk making teachers, librarians, and volunteers vulnerable to being fired, sued, or prosecuted.” Also, in its initial October statement, Scholastic declared: “To continue offering these books, as well as even more high interest titles, we created an additional collection called Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice for our U.S. elementary school fairs.” It’s notable that Scholastic, after creating an ‘other’ category of books that reflected the laws and local district policies banning books that address race, history, sexuality and gender, stated quite plainly that the segregated books were being offered alongside “even more high interest titles.”
There were not and are still not only two choices when it comes to banning books. The impossible dilemma that Scholastic names is one that serves and, in fact, reinforces local and state-level policies banning books that are written by people of color as well as books that include characters who are LGBTQIA2S. People live with multiple social opportunities and restrictions, including young readers are both Black and live with a disability as one example, but that recognition of intersectional realities is absent in Scholastic’s choice to, in essence, mark some books as diverse and segregate those books in its fairs. This is misinformed and, at worst, reckless in a time when book banning laws have been passed in 30 states.
With a net worth of $1.8 billion, Scholastic enjoyed a profit of $1.7 billion in 2023. That sizeable profit was an increase from the $1.65 billion in 2022. Along the same timeline, according to PEN America, the company has thirty-three different book magazines that are circulated through schools and book fairs to 13.5 million young readers. From the company’s home page, it proclaims its purpose as being a place and resource “[w]here kids choose the books they love and schools earn rewards.” When children are restricted from choice through the segregation of books and their authors and illustrators, what are they learning about love? What are they learning about their agency that is well beyond the parameters of what books they might be able to purchase?
Huey P. Newton’s writings about power help to lift up the power dynamics in Scholastic’s decisions: “To us power is, first of all, the ability to define phenomena, and secondly the ability to make these phenomena act in a desired manner.” If a young reader is not presented with the option to read certain books that are deemed inherently controversial for addressing race, history, sexual identity, and gender, that phenomenon has been constructed for them and without them at the table. Further, becoming a literate subject of that state happens through books that are read in classrooms, in homes, in churches, under the blanket at night using a flashlight because the book is too good to stop reading. All of the instances are, in the current heat of book banning, socializing children, their caregivers, and their educators to act in accordance with the idea that it is acceptable to ban books simply because they do not center the stories of people who are white, cishet, not living with a disability, and disconnected from the legacy of the United States’ foundational sins of stolen labor on stolen land.
And then Scholastic apologized.
It matters a great deal that Scholastic, in a letter written by their senior vice president, Ellen Berger, apologized. That letter, dated October 24, apologized to the many people their policy had hurt and acknowledged that their actions had broken relationships. Scholastic, from Berger’s position, also pledged to “stand with you as we redouble our efforts to combat the laws that restrict children’s access to books.” Time will tell how this commitment manifests materially. We are in a protracted yet precedented time when binary ways of thinking predominate: this book is good because it portrays Thomas Jefferson as a hero; this book is bad because it tells Black girls that is okay to love their hair. Binaries are screamed vocally and through signs at school board meetings, political processes, and with families. It matters a great deal that Scholastic owned their unprincipled policy and committed to combatting restrictive laws and policies rather than providing an unnecessary ‘cover’ that, in essence, buckled to the monied pressure of a small yet vocal coalition seeking oversight over knowledge itself.
One of the easiest mistakes we could make at this moment is over-inflating Scholastic’s influence. A collective and ongoing movement called We Need Diverse Books has been, for years, creating spaces for books that have nuanced messages about race and history. Unsurprisingly, their website has featured toolkits for combatting book bans.
And finally, there are pop-up libraries, collective meetings outside of schools, and many other ways that people are simply continuing to read. They are reading, engaging with each other. As people have always demonstrated, when laws exist to strip humanity of its promise, people find ways to, as Grace Lee Boggs has written, pursue being more human human beings.
About the Author
Dr. Leigh Patel is an interdisciplinary researcher, an educator, a writer, and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She works extensively with societally marginalized youth and teacher activists. Patel is a recipient of the June Jordan Award for scholarly leadership and poetic bravery in social critique and is a national board member of Education for Liberation, a long-standing organization dedicated to transformative education for and by youth of color. She is the author of Youth Held at the Border, Decolonizing Educational Research, and No Study Without Struggle. Connect with her on Twitter at @lipatel.