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Scholastic book fairs, a staple at U.S. schools, accused of excluding diverse books

Book fairs run by publisher Scholastic are a staple at schools across the U.S., with the pop-up sales events allowing students to shop for new titles without leaving school property. But now, the company is being accused of creating what some are calling a "bigotry button" that allows school districts to exclude books from the fairs that touch on race, LGBTQ and other issues related to diversity.

Some social media users noticed last month that Scholastic had carved out a separate category of books for the book fair events dubbed "Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice." The collection, which includes books about civil rights icon John Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown, among others, allows schools to opt out of carrying the titles in their book fairs. 

Scholastic on Friday issued a statement defending the new collection, saying it took the step because of existing or pending legislation in 30 states that prohibit "certain kinds of books" from schools, such as titles that focus on LGBTQ issues or racism. Grouping books in this fashion is a way to protect teachers, librarians and volunteers from legal problems, or even from getting fired, for providing access to books that violate local laws.

"We cannot make a decision for our school partners around what risks they are willing to take, based on the state and local laws that apply to their district, so these topics and this collection have been part of many planning calls that happen in advance of shipping a fair," said Scholastic, which bills itself as the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books. 

"We are invited guests in schools, and we took that into account when making this decision," a spokeswoman for the company added.

PEN America: Risk of "censorious ends"

PEN America, an organization that promotes free speech and literature, on Tuesday said it "shares the dismay we are hearing from authors" about the publisher's decision. 

The group acknowledged the challenges facing librarians, Scholastic and other groups in the face of state laws targeting some topics, but added that creating a separate group of books dealing with diverse themes "risks depriving students and families of books that speak to them."

"Despite the challenges of this climate, we call on Scholastic to explore other solutions so they can reject any role in accommodating these nefarious laws and local pressures, or being an accessory to government censorship," PEN America said in the statement.

But PEN America also blamed lawmakers and others in states who have promoted and passed book censorship laws. The group added that Scholastic's approach to keep its book fairs running through "a fraught legal and political climate" risks "being twisted to accomplish censorious ends."

One author told CBS MoneyWatch she shares those concerns.

"I get that they're caught in a hard place during this awful, incomprehensible season of censorship in many communities," Denise Lewis Patrick, whose book "Justice Ketanji" is included in Scholastic's new collection, said in an email. "But as a mother and grandmother, I strongly believe that all children should have access to books that both expand and enrich their worlds."

Diverse books

The book publisher also said that books representing diversity are still included in its main book fair offerings. According to a list of books provided by Scholastic to CBS MoneyWatch, its core book fair titles include one called "Frizzy," about a girl who stops straightening her hair, and "The Hidden Girl," about a girl who hides during the Holocaust. But most of the titles are related to popular characters like Spiderman or games such as Minecraft. 

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Creating an opt-out group of diverse book fair titles comes as Scholastic is under fire from some conservatives for its book selection. One group, Brave Books, is urging parents and schools to "cancel Scholastic," claiming that the book fairs sell titles that "appear harmless" but include "ideas like gender fluidity and the LGBTQIA+ agenda on the inside."

Scholastic's book fair business is already facing pressure. In its most recent quarter, sales were down 4% from a year earlier, although the company said it expects business to rebound as more students return to making purchases in person following the pandemic. The company is hosting about 90% of the book fairs that it ran prior to the health crisis.

Book fairs accounted about $27 million in sales in Scholastic's most recent quarter, or about 12% of revenue for the period.

Florida, which is among the states that have enacted laws that restricts some types of instruction at schools, now bans K-12 schools from teaching that members of one race are inherently racist or that they should feel guilt for past actions committed by others of the same race. 

The "Share Every Story" collection includes titles that deal with issues linked to race and inclusiveness, although it's unclear how many of the titles would violate some of the state laws cited by Scholastic. 

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For instance, "Because of You, John Lewis" is about a boy who wants to meet the civil rights icon, while "Change Sings," by poet Amanda Gorman, who spoke at President Biden's inauguration, is about "the power to make changes," according to the Scholastic catalog.

Other books encourage acceptance and tolerance of all types of people, such as "You Are Enough," from disability activist and model Sofia Sanchez, who has Down syndrome, which focuses on accepting differences. Other titles include books with characters who are Asian, Latino or Native American, while some touch on topics such as immigration and bullying.

"We don't pretend this solution is perfect – but the other option would be to not offer these books at all – which is not something we'd consider," Scholastic said in its statement. 

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