By: Jamie Gregory
The publishing industry is at the heart of American democracy, making ideas available for dissemination. The government does not interfere, establishing our freedom to read. People may accept or reject those ideas, but they make their own moral judgments. However, the ideas first have to be available without a formal censor (whether the government, government figures, or private groups).
Librarians then choose which ideas to make available to communities. So it seems appropriate to claim that publishers and librarians are among the important, powerful players in the effort to maintain and strengthen our democratic society, as we make ideas readily available to the masses.
There have always been groups who maintain that the purpose of some book publishing is to indoctrinate readers; to somehow dupe and manipulate them into believing various ideas which are viewed as dangerous to society at large; it is insidious and invidious. In this case, some argue for restricting private publishing businesses by sets of arbitrary values chosen by a particular group, imposed on everyone else.
A notable recent example of this viewpoint stormed Twitter on August 21, 2019. Joy Pullman’s blog post “Scholastic’s New School Catalog Hawks Books To Saturate Kids With Identity Politics” takes issue with Scholastic’s recent catalog cover featuring books from the We Need Diverse Books organization.
You’ll find the usual objections to books such as Star Crossed by Barbara Dee and You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino, exploring issues of bisexuality, racism, and bigotry. The ALA finds that more books in recent years are being challenged because of LGBTQ+ issues as opposed to language use or violence. And while this blog post certainly represents a fringe group generally accepted to be outside of the norm, some of the comments exemplify her beliefs:
It’s a curious argument, believing that “saturating” the market with books featuring non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual characters creates too much divisiveness. The factual numbers in publishing do not support this opinion.
Books depicting animals constitute a higher percentage of children’s books than any two minority groups combined. And almost three-quarters of children’s books feature white characters or animals.
In addition, Pullman objects to nonfiction books such as The Unwanted: stories of the Syrian refugees by Don Brown, or Native American Heroes by Dawn Quigley, or What Would She Do? by Kay Woodward. She only gives a clear reason for her objection to What Would She Do?, stating that girls should not admire women who are famous for fighting against “inequality, gender stereotyping, body shaming, and bullying;” rather, girls should read about “dedicating your life to curing cancer, finding out how to feed masses of the world’s hungry, mothering a happy family, or serving India’s lepers.” Reject The Unwanted which sympathetically portrays Syrian refugees and argues that we should help our fellow humans in need. Reject Native American Heroes because…well, I’m not really sure why. Political activists working to save their cultures aren’t heroes?
Pullman claims the twenty-three percent of diverse books shows the politicization of young adult publishing. Which begs the question, then what was young adult publishing before? Is a book political simply by having characters which are non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual? Featuring girls and women who stand up against body shaming and bullying? And if you argue that books published today are too divisive, and those books feature diverse characters, then you are actually arguing that books should not feature diversity, which then traditionally means they should be about white people and white culture, all in order to promote unity.
Those who support this illogical view claim that they no longer have the freedom of speech to make this argument without being belittled or labeled racist. What this leaves is a clash of how to interpret the freedom of speech. The commenter quoted above fears a takeover of the state, but if book publishing were to be forced (not sure by whom) to exclude any material related to diversity, would that not be the same as a “takeover of the state?” The only difference is that the latter would support the commenter’s worldview, which would justify it.
The publishing industry would indeed have to be forced (presumably by the government) to stop selling such books. Pullman quotes that the Scholastic company boasts $1.6 billion in annual revenue. Of course the company is trying to make money, but what does that actually mean? People WANT to buy the books. Instead, she concludes that “The end goal of all of this is also extremely clear: fomenting the rise of identity politics among increasingly younger children, to saturate everyone’s families, schools, and public squares with far-left and hugely divisive politics.”
People like Pullman scoff at diverse books, arguing that some topics are too “adult” for children, that they should just be children and not be forced to consider topics such as sexuality, gender, immigration, race, police brutality, hate crimes, etc. But after paying attention to the news, the world itself is forcing these issues on children in the form of mass shootings, bullying, suicide, mental health, and more. Should it then be surprising that children’s literature is beginning to address such topics?
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a new policy statement, “Racism and Its Impact on Child and Adolescent Health.” The AAP states that “racism is a social determinant of health” which can lead to health inequities and “have the potential to undermine socioemotional development and general developmental outcomes.” This makes sense when you consider the disproportionate amount of minorities incarcerated or formally punished in the public school system. Lower high school graduation rates and chronic absenteeism are also cited as factors that affect the ability to secure health care in the future, live longer lives, and have lower rates of chronic disease. The AAP encourages health care providers to “assess patients who report experiencing racism for mental health conditions, including signs of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, grief, and depressive symptoms.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship cites information from the Center for Disease Control revealing that 9 out of 10 LGBTQ students regularly confront teasing, bullying, and sometimes violence. These students are 140 times more likely than heterosexual students to miss school due to safety concerns. Additionally, 1 out of 3 LGBTQ youth attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts.
There are people in our society who are suffering unjustly and needlessly. And they’re not suffering from the books.
To strive for a library collection which accurately and equally represents all kinds of different people is not indoctrination; it’s humanizing. After all, as the AAP points out, race is a social construct; humans constitute one biological race and are “99.9% the same at the level of their genome.”
The most American thing Pullman could do? Include diverse books in her reading because of the fact that she disagrees with them.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.