Friday, July 12, 2024

The children’s book publisher Scholastic, which had begun separating some books about race and gender at school book fairs, said this week it was halting the new practice after pointed criticism from some authors, educators and parents.

The company had designated 64 titles as optional for the fairs in response to dozens of recent laws in states with conservative leaders that restricted what content students can be exposed to in schools.

Among the books included on the list were biographies of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson of the Supreme Court and the civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis; a novel about a Lakota girl; and a picture book about different family types, including families with adoptive or same-sex parents.

The list of the separated titles was called the “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” catalog. Book fair organizers have had the ability to opt out of all or some of those titles.

But after Scholastic publicly acknowledged the new, separate catalog this month, the company was pilloried in many quarters, with critics saying Scholastic was accommodating censorship.

There are more than 120,000 Scholastic book fairs annually, and the company said its goal for the separate list was to help educators navigate the new, often vaguely worded laws. Some carry severe penalties, including fines and job loss. The laws generally restrict discussions or books about racism and L.G.B.T.Q. identities.

But the company faced fierce blowback. In a letter sent this week to its authors and illustrators, Scholastic apologized for causing pain, and promised to work to regain trust. “We pledge to stand with you as we redouble our efforts to combat the laws restricting children’s access to books,” Ellie Berger, president of Scholastic’s trade publishing division, wrote.

The states with restrictive curriculum laws, including Florida, represent a large 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 had opposed Scholastic’s original policy, praised the publisher’s move to backtrack.

“Scholastic recognized that, as difficult a bind as this pernicious legislation created, the right answer was not to become an accessory to censorship,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of the group’s free expression and education program. “Scholastic is an essential source of knowledge and a delight for countless children. We are glad to see them champion the freedom to read.”

Opponents of state laws limiting the curriculum have argued that accommodating the restrictions masks their impact.

Jennifer Jenkins, a member of the Brevard County School Board, in Central Florida, said she would prefer that Scholastic and other publishers refuse to do business in Florida.

“Ultimately, the residents of the state would realize how detrimental this is to their students,” she said, “and those impacts would show up at the ballot box.”

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