The sweeping Republican effort to ban books from schools could not succeed solely on the backs of fervid state lawmakers and extremist school board members. Reactionary demands to censor books on topics ranging from Black history to LGBTQ+ existence have been abetted by the timid acquiescence of school districts, superintendents, and others in educational leadership. Now, Scholastic, the world’s largest children’s book publisher, has joined the constellation of parties tacitly aiding the GOP’s suppressive agenda.
For its thousands of book fairs in elementary schools this year, the company has segregated books focusing on a huge array of topics and stories — fiction and nonfiction — that share little in common aside from not centering white, heterosexual experience. Books on Black identity, picture books with LGBTQ+ characters, stories of Indigenous history and migration, among others, have been grouped together in a collection under the cloying title “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice.” School officials can then opt to exclude the entire section from their schools’ book fairs in one fell swoop. As Judd Legum reported, one librarian called the option a “bigot button.”
The policy design bends toward censorship: Librarians are offered the choice to include the collection, but exclusion is the baseline. Book Riot, an independent book industry website, noted that Scholastic is “the de facto school book fair provider”: a billion-dollar multinational corporation that hosts 120,000 book fairs in the United States each year. The scales of power do not weigh heavily on the publisher to bend so readily to far-right pressure.
The company has hardly been restrained in its selections: Titles up for en masse exclusion include nothing so radical as a biography of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a picture book about the late Rep. John Lewis, a collection of poems by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, and numerous kids’ books that dare to show that LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and disabled people exist. In previous years, such titles would have simply been mixed in with other offerings.
Book bans have been a major front in the Republicans’ Christo-nationalist refashioning of the education system. According to a report from PEN America, in the 2022 to 2023 school year there were 3,362 recorded instances of book bans in U.S. public school classrooms and libraries. “Authors whose books are targeted are most frequently female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals,” the report noted. In the last two years, 15 states have passed legislation to ban books in all school grades that relate to some mangled notion of critical race theory or anything that challenges racism and introduces gender nonconformity. Similar bills have been proposed in more than a dozen states.
“Because Scholastic Book Fairs are invited into schools, where books can be purchased by kids on their own, these laws create an almost impossible dilemma,” the company said in a statement published in response to criticism. “[B]ack away from these titles or risk making teachers, librarians, and volunteers vulnerable to being fired, sued, or prosecuted.”
The deflection to issues of teacher liability is a cheap abdication. As a powerful corporate enterprise, the publisher could throw its weight behind challenging book bans and defending imperiled teachers who fight for anti-racist education. Instead, it is making the enactment of reactionary laws easier. That a billion-dollar firm has not taken the righteous path comes as no shock.
Scholastic’s decision is all the more feeble given the weaknesses of the book ban laws and removal policies in question. The language of the laws themselves is extremely vague. For instance, Arizona bans “instruction that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.” Florida is particularly expansive but no more specific, barring “any training or instruction that ‘espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels’ belief in certain ideas about race, sex, color, or national origin.” Arkansas legislation simply states that public institutions are barred from the “teaching or training of divisive concepts.”
The laws’ ambiguity gives the state expansive leverage to reprimand and punish schools, librarians, and individual teachers should a prosecutor choose to apply the law aggressively. The imprecision, however, also gives educators and school officials more ground to push back — especially as fights against these laws continue in federal court.
School districts and educational companies like Scholastic need not jump so readily through right-wing hoops.
Instead, school districts have mostly responded with vigor in removing books from shelves. Teachers and librarians should not, of course, have to risk their livelihoods, and schools should not have to risk losing funding, in order to keep diverse books on shelves. But school districts (those not already under the yoke of extremists) and educational companies like Scholastic need not jump so readily through right-wing hoops. The progressive-lite ring of “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” does not drown out the fact that the billion-dollar company is offering up censorship on a platter.
The answer to the GOP’s ideological warfare has never been to put our faith in private corporations like Scholastic to maintain kids’ access to diverse reading material, just as Bud Light and Target will not carve the path for trans liberation by market-testing LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
Scholastic Book Fairs are themselves a reflection of an underfunded, unequal public school system, in which a private company sets up shop inside schools to sell to the parents and libraries that can afford to spend the money. “School book fairs are a public display of disposable income,” wrote Book Riot’s Danika Ellis, “it is school-sponsored consumption.”
But for the sheer fact of offering books that tell stories beyond whiteness and gender conformity, Scholastic has — like Disney — drawn the ire of far-right zealots. Legum noted, “In recent months, Scholastic has faced sustained criticism from Brave Books, a publisher created to counter ‘the progressive agenda in so many of today’s children’s books.’” The group plans to offer alternative book fairs to meet more reactionary tastes. Their titles include such dross as “Elephants Are Not Birds,” which teaches children that “boys are not girls,” by failing to understand how the constructs of gender, sex, and, indeed, language and meaning work.
Brave Books are hardly a threat to Scholastic’s near monopoly on school book fairs, but like every corporation erroneously branded “woke,” the publishers’ commitment to social justice, even in its most tepid form, goes as far as it serves profit margins and no further. The “Share Every Story” bundle is a dodge, aiding book bans while keeping the market share for sales of texts celebrating diversity. If the company wants to protect teachers, librarians, and schools from the consequences of rightfully defying book bans, it can throw its money behind getting Christo-fascists out of office, or supporting lawsuits and legislation to stop book bans and protect educators who won’t be coerced out of teaching inclusive titles.