The insidious rise of “soft censorship”

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YA authors face canceled events, phantom bans and other low-key layoffs from their work

Attacks on books are not only increasing. They change shape.

As elected officials and well-organized parent groups demand control of access to books in schools, censorship has spread to new arenas. Authors respond to requests to omit certain books or topics from their presentations, see sales to school libraries decline, and find that invitations have completely dried up.

The national non-profit We Need Diverse Books announced on March 10 that it was monitoring these incidents of “soft censorship”.

“WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LIGHT CENSORSHIP. It is real, insidious and dangerous. It happens all the time, but BC books are quietly taken down, with no news, no outrage, the authors never know they’ve been censored. For marginalized authors who rely on school or library visits, the impact is severe,” said We Need Diverse Books co-founder Ellen Oh. tweeted.

“Guess how many school events I’ve had since the book ban started in 2021. 0,” tweeted Ashley Hope Pérez, whose 2015 historical fiction novel Out of Darkness has been a frequent target. “Never a gap like this before, even in a pandemic. And that’s absolutely what these groups are all about – removing books, stopping conversations, intimidating teachers, limiting students.

Perhaps the most high-profile of these cases was graphic novelist Jerry Craft, who saw a virtual tour of schools in Katy, Texas, abandoned and his books removed from shelves after parents complained that his Newbery, winner of Newbery, promoted critical race theory.

In fact, it is not. It follows the experience of a young black boy at an elite private school. After national media coverage, the district postponed his visit.

But this is an outlier. Just as only a handful of bans have led to sales spikes (few books get the boost Maus did), most of the impacts on author visits occur outside of the spotlight.

It happened to young adult author Brandy Colbert.

‘The Black Birds’ by Brandy Colbert.

The organizers of a festival dedicated to African-American literature in Texas schools invited her to talk about her writing career. A few days before the February event, Colbert’s team received a request: could they avoid talking about Black Birds in the Sky?

His latest title for young readers, subtitled The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Black Birds in the Sky is a nonfiction account of how white residents of Tulsa raided and razed the predominantly Black neighborhood. Greenwood of Tulsa. It won non-fiction honors from the Young Adult Library Services Association division of the American Library Association. But according to the school district, it was “too controversial,” Colbert said in an interview with Book and Film Globe.

Pressed to elaborate, “they wouldn’t give an additional answer,” she said. “They said, ‘OK, we won’t censor his presentation, but we won’t buy Black Birds In the Sky. The district had originally arranged to purchase books from each of the presenting authors for participating schools.

“My heart just sank at first, because I know my books have been included in lists of books to be banned and potentially censored in Texas,” Colbert said. She had thought they might target her novels.

“The emotions that really surprised me were shame and embarrassment. So to tell the truth and tell this story about what really happened and was hidden for so many years is too inappropriate. for kids ? “

Colbert, the author of several novels for young people including Stonewall-winning Little & Lion and The Voting Booth, decided to step down rather than accept the district’s refusal to buy copies of Black Birds in the Sky.

“They were trying to establish parameters that I didn’t feel comfortable participating in,” she said. “It’s the old slippery slope. If I start accepting these rules – “Well, we won’t censor your presentation, but we won’t buy your books.” It is a difficult thing to weigh. … But at the end of the day, I don’t want to sell books based on the Blackness font.

Authors rely not only on school visits and events, of course, but also on overall book sales, especially to school libraries and book fairs. When schools avoid buying certain titles, it has a chilling effect. Author Phil Bildner wrote in a 2020 blog post about a school canceling his scheduled appearance because his most recent book, A High Five for Glenn Burke, featured a young gay boy. And in 2016, the Round Rock school district in suburban Austin, Texas, abruptly canceled scheduled visits to eight schools after recommending Alex Gino’s Melissa, which focuses on a transgender girl.

A look through the Round Rock ISD online library catalog reveals a sharp drop in Bildner’s book count after this 2016 incident. The district holds 33 copies of A Whole New Ballgame’ (2015) and 25 copies from Marvelous Cornelius (2015). But there are only eight copies of Martina & Chrissie (2017) and nine copies of A High Five for Glenn Burke, a selection from the Junior Library Guild.

We move the world”, by Kari Lavelle.

School districts blocked Kari Lavelle when she was just starting her career. She had arranged to visit San Antonio public school students to talk about We Move the World, which features “dreamers and doers” like astronaut Neil Armstrong and dancer Misty Copeland. it would have been her first paid in-person school visit, a full day of presentations. Then she got a call from one of the parent volunteers.

“We were figuring out the details for the day when she let me know that we had to cancel because district staff said my content was too political,” Lavelle said. Although the district didn’t provide specifics, Lavelle thinks her picture book’s references to Colin Kaepernick and Pride parades tipped the scales.

“It’s really weird having a whole neighborhood of kids that I can’t talk to,” Lavelle said, adding that school staff have a plan in place to answer any questions the children have. parents could have lifted.

“If my book is feeling the ripple effect of what’s happening in politics, then what’s next?”

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