By: guest contributor Julia A. Newphew
Author Robin Stevenson spoke November 20 to a group of approximately 100 adults and children at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Her scheduled author visit to fourth and fifth graders at Longfellow Elementary School in neighboring Wheaton, Illinois, had been abruptly canceled over a month earlier. A parent had contacted school administrators about the LGBTQ+ content of the author’s book. Stevenson had not planned to discuss LGBTQ+ issues at the visit that was canceled, but she discussed them November 20.
Stevenson began her talk by describing her own childhood and how she knew she was lesbian in high school, but did not tell anyone until she went to college. She said that she knew that her parents would support her, but she also knew that other people would not. Some of her friends rejected her after she came out, but most accepted her for who she was. The Canadian writer of fiction and nonfiction books for children described how she has been married for twenty years and that she and her wife are raising a son.
Stevenson is visiting schools to talk about her new book: Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change. The book features descriptions of the childhoods of sixteen diverse activists, including Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk, Helen Keller, and Malala Yousafzai. Stevenson would like her book to inspire “important conversations” in schools so that LGBTQ+ kids learn about people like them who have made a difference in helping people achieve equality.
The news of Stevenson’s canceled appearance at the Wheaton school became national when the author sent an open letter addressed to Wheaton Warrenville School District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler and the school board.
Stevenson states in the letter that a student of the district contacted her to say that they had been considering coming out, but the homophobic comments by adults in the Wheaton community about her book and the cancellation of her visit has made them afraid to do so. She says that the school district has harmed its students by its censorship. The school district at first claimed the visit was canceled because parents were not appropriately notified of the author’s visit. Lindsey Lopez, a parent of a Longfellow fourth grader who attended the author’s presentation November 20 with her child, said that parents were adequately informed: the flyer sent to parents showed the cover of the book with a young Harvey Milk holding a rainbow pride flag. District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler later admitted that the reason was concerns about stories in the book about gender identity and LGBTQ issues. (Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist, is one of the sixteen people featured.) The Daily Herald, a local newspaper for Wheaton and Glen Ellyn, reported that Schuler and five District 200 board members attended Stevenson’s talk; Schuler said he would meet with Stevenson the following day.
Stevenson was invited to Glen Ellyn by Illinois State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, a Democrat who was elected in 2018, replacing conservative Republican Peter Breen. Many businesses and organizations helped fund the author’s visit, including United Airlines, Discover DuPage, Westin Hotels, and Equality Illinois. Stevenson told attendees how pleased she was to hear from so many people in the area who supported her: “It’s wonderful to know that there are so many people … who are willing to speak up for LGBTQ students, LGBTQ equality.”
I brought my nine-year-old twins to Stevenson’s presentation and was happy that she prioritized questions from the children and asked them questions. When asked what an activist is, a child answered “someone who stands up for the world.” Stevenson is caring and approachable, a wonderful advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. The event was an opportunity to show my children that they live among many caring community members who want children and adults to feel safe being who they are.
Julia A. Nephew is a Children Services Librarian at the Addison Public Library in Addison, Illinois, and a member of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). She is interested in all aspects of intellectual freedom but especially self-censorship and the policies adopted by public library and school boards that guide administrators in how to respond to challenges. Julia earned her MLIS and a Certificate in Special Studies: Archives at Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois, and her PhD in French from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she is not reading children’s books, she enjoys spending time with her husband and children, serving as an elected commissioner of her local park district, traveling, yoga, and discussing esoteric topics in medieval and Renaissance literature and culture. Find her on LinkedIn.