Children’s book publisher Scholastic, which has begun segregating some books about race and gender at school book fairs, said this week it was halting the new practice after persistent criticism from some authors, educators and parents.
The company designated 64 titles as optional for fairs in response to dozens of recent state laws that limit the content students can be exposed to in schools.
Among the books included on the list were biographies of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis; a novel about a Lakota girl; and a picture book about different types of families, including families with adoptive or same-sex parents.
The list of separate titles is called the “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” catalog. Book fair organizers had the option to drop all or some of those titles.
But after Scholastic publicly acknowledged the new, separate catalog this month, the company was under fire in many quarters, with critics saying Scholastic was acquiescing in censorship.
With more than 120,000 school book fairs held annually, the company said its goal for the special list is to help educators navigate the new, often vaguely worded laws in states with conservative leaders. Some carry harsh penalties, including fines and job loss. Laws generally restrict discussions or books about racism and LGBTQ identities.
But the company faced a fierce backlash. In a letter it sent to its authors and illustrators this week, Scholastic apologized for causing pain and promised to work to restore trust. “We promise to stand with you as we redouble our efforts to fight laws that limit children’s access to books,” wrote Ellie Berger, Scholastic’s president of trade publishing.
States with restrictive curriculum laws, including Florida, are a big market for educational publishers, and several companies have found themselves caught up in debates about how they should respond to the new laws.
PEN America, a free-speech organization that opposed Scholastic’s original policy, praised the publisher’s attempt to back down.
“Scholastic recognized that, as difficult a bond as this disastrous legislation created, the right answer was not to become complicit in censorship,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of the group’s free expression and education programs. “Scholastic is an essential source of knowledge and enjoyment for countless children. We are glad to see them stand up for the freedom of reading.”
Opponents of state laws restricting curriculum argue that adjusting the restrictions obscures their impact.
Jennifer Jenkins, a member of the Brevard County School Board in central Florida, said she would prefer Scholastic and other publishers to refuse to do business in Florida.
“Eventually, the people of the state would realize how detrimental it is to their students,” she said, “and those impacts would show up at the ballot box.”