Every adult in America of a certain age probably remembers attending the Scholastic Book Fair — the feeling of excitement, perusing the catalog, circling the books you wanted, the scrounging of allowance money — to buy books for yourself. Since 1981, the Scholastic Book Fair has been a time-honored tradition. But in 2023, Scholastic has decided to make diversity optional.

Under the ambiguous title, “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice,” Scholastic has separated all their books that describe the experiences and history of people of color into a separate group not by age  (e.g., early readers, middle grade), but by content.

In a statement, the publisher practically admits to giving into the recent rash of book bans in certain states – like Texas and Florida –  so as to not offend any parent or trigger any retaliatory action: “We don’t pretend this solution is perfect — but the other option would be not to offer these books at all.” Scholastic asserts that they made the decision to be sensitive to the climates in which diverse titles violate local laws. Had parents not pushed back, this policy change would have remained unknown. Scholastic’s new policy reflects what has come to be known as soft censorship — the subtle removal of choices that is often done out of fear of consequences.

The danger of soft censorship is how quiet it is, which is why the decision to only explain under pressure is such a problem. Scholastic is often the only game in town, with 120,000 book fairs held nationwide. So, they made a decision that could appeal to multiple markets — so long as that decision was not clearly identified and broadcasted. So long as it stayed quiet. But parents sounded the alarm. I was one of them, witnessing firsthand how soft censorship works.

I’m a parent volunteer for the PTA in charge of the Scholastic Book Fair at my child’s elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland. The proceeds of the book fair raise funds to support the school — funds that will help buy new books for the media center and provide extra supports for teachers. When I embarked on this effort, it didn’t occur to me that the issues we talk about every day at EdTrust would play out in my volunteer role.

My first interaction with Scholastic was through an introductory call with my assigned representative, who gave a phone orientation on how the book fair works, and what to expect. She explained all the resources available to me and confirmed the dates of my fair. Then, we started talking about the inventory, including how many cases of books we’d be sent. To my surprise, she asked me if my school wanted a special case of diverse books for my fair, adding, “Since you’re in Montgomery County, Maryland, I assume you want that case.” I, of course, said yes.

After the phone call, however, it occurred to me that I was just one single volunteer. What if I personally felt differently about including diverse books in the fair? Would I have been able to solely make that decision? Why was the publishing company abdicating responsibility for diversifying the selection of books available to schools?

As a follow-up, the representative sent me a list of all the books available, including the ones in the diversity pack. I also got added to a private Facebook group of volunteers running book fairs across the country. Many of the posts were mundane: help with the registers, suggestions for a layout, etc. But some were truly revealing of how this soft book ban is playing out. For example, one volunteer said they appreciated the company giving them a heads-up on the potentially divisive books because opting in would jeopardize their ability to host a book fair, which provides critical funds to the school library. Other volunteers were annoyed that the diversity catalog was separate and made a point to integrate these books throughout the fair because a student shouldn’t have to go to a “special table” to see themselves in a book.

The most striking post was from a middle school parent. The picture showed empty shelves next to boxes full of books. The poster explained that their school is not allowed to sell any books that Scholastic labels as “mature content,” which meant that many of the books delivered for the fair could NOT be sold. Eighth-grade students who saw the books being pulled expressed their dismay because, they told the parent, these were books they would have wanted to buy. In the same community, another poster explained that their middle school opted out of any books labeled “mature content.” – as a result, Scholastic sent them a different assortment of books that included books for third and fourth graders. Another parent commented that because they were in Florida, the school required kids to bring signed parental waivers to attend the fair.

In EdTrust’s recent report, The Search for More Complex Racial and Ethnic Representation in Grade School Books, we show that children are already limited in their exposure to diversity, particularly diversity that is complex. Despite 54% of students being children of color, children are not seeing themselves represented in ways rich in diversity and spirit. By limiting the kinds of books that children can access, Scholastic is only exacerbating the problem. They should know better — and do better.

William Rodick Ph.D., Ed Trust’s P-12 practice lead, contributed to this post.

UPDATE: On October 24, just 11 days after their initial statement, Scholastic issued a letter of apology to authors and illustrators and stated that the segregation of books into an optional collection will be discontinued starting in January 2024.