Authors Visits Dwindle Amid Censorship Campaigns

LGBTQIA+ authors and writers of color are getting fewer invitations to speak to students at schools as attempts to ban books continue across the country.

 

Author Samira Ahmed at her February visit to Hathaway Brown in Ohio.

Author Samira Ahmed’s joy is palpable as she discusses her first in-person author visit since the pandemic shuttered schools in March 2020.

“It was honestly just the most perfect welcome back to in-person school visits,” says Ahmed of the day she spent at Hathaway Brown in Shaker Heights, OH, on February 25. Students had prepared and asked her questions, discussed her writing process, gave her a tour of the school, and one even stopped her in the hall to ask about her favorite Indian food.

“I really loved [that] because it was just a little personal connection,” says Ahmed, author of Internment, Ms. Marvel, Amira and Hamza, and other YA and middle grade titles. “The students who were giving me the tour, said, ‘You know, this is the first time we've ever had a South Asian author come to the school, so it was probably really exciting for her just to see that and to be able to relate to you in that way.’ I thought that was a very astute observation.”

Representation is “a big deal,” says Hathaway Brown library director Kati Fink, who invited Ahmed.

“We are an all-girls school, so I do focus on trying to find strong, female authors,” says Fink. “We bring in different people of different backgrounds and make sure that we're bringing in the authors that represent students who maybe wouldn't have seen themselves as an author before.”

A couple of weeks after Ahmed’s successful Ohio visit, author Phil Bildner was visiting schools in Missouri talking about his most recent book, A High Five for Glenn Burke, about the first Major League Baseball player to come out as gay.
 

Phil Bildner spoke to students in Missouri in March.


Bildner described his school visits as “spectacular.”

“It was absolutely wonderful. It was great,” says Bildner. “I got to meet with middle school kids, and they got to hear a different voice, a voice that was a little bit more hopeful and a little different than what they're feeling than what they've been hearing for quite some time.”

Most authors love talking with young readers, discussing their process, their books, and whatever students want to talk about on any given day. Getting back to in-person visits creates a first-day-of-school kind of excitement in these adults. But as books by and about the LGBTQIA+ and Black and brown communities are threatened by censorship attempts across the country, many authors are having their visits canceled or receiving fewer invitations to meet with students in-person or virtually.

“I only know of one where my invitation was rescinded,” says Kyle Lukoff, Stonewall Award winner and author of 2022 Newbery Honor book Too Bright to See. “But of course, I cannot know how many people have mentioned my name in meetings to have it shot down because they're afraid of what the consequences might be.”

One of the first very public examples of the political climate and censorship campaigns impacting author visits came in October when Newbery-winning New Kid author Jerry Craft’s virtual visit to a Texas school was cancelled because parents complained that his books taught critical race theory. After a public outcry and wave of support for Craft and his work, the visit was rescheduled.

“It was fantastic,” he said just after the visit. “I got so much great feedback from parents whose kids either couldn't stop talking about the visit, rushed home to write their own stories, or spent the rest of the day drawing pictures.”

But most authors aren’t Jerry Craft. Their visits are canceled –or an invitation is never extended—without any fanfare or rallying of support. They are left without concrete answers as to why they were removed from an event or aren’t getting booked. Is it COVID-related? Are schools struggling for funding? Do kids not like the book? Or is it, as most assume, an offshoot of the movement to censor books by members of the LGBTQIA+ and Black and brown communities, along with books that discuss race, social justice issues, sexism, and the history of racism in the United States.

 
 

“They're not willing to bring in certain authors,” says Bildner, founder of The Author Village, which helps schedule authors at schools and events. “Your heart aches for these teachers and librarians because they still want to bring in these authors to their students and their communities; because they know how much value it has and how much their students need to hear from these authors. But they have so much on their plates right now, and all of a sudden hosting an author visit has become a risky venture.”

At Hathaway Brown, a private school, Fink admits that she has more flexibility than her public school counterparts. While she has not faced any objections, she has had “conversations” over which authors to bring to campus, she says.

“We're able to bring in many different voices and say, ‘We want to share this voice—they might not absolutely align with what we do here at school, but we want you to know that this voice exists and to learn from it,’” says Fink. “My students know that I'm going to advocate for any authors that they think that should be on campus.”

But for many teachers and librarians, Bildner says, pushing an author who has been deemed “controversial” invites a battle and opens up educators to becoming a target in this volatile environment.

"You can't blame them for not wanting to,” he says.

Bildner has not had school visits canceled but was abruptly removed from an event for Texas educators in February after months of preparation and correspondence. A week before the event, he was told that “due to unforeseen circumstances,” he would no longer be a part of it. He reached out to educators that he knew, and each one, he says, pointed him to the 850-title list by Texas state representative Matt Krause.

“Of course, I have titles on that list,” says Bildner.

Through long-standing relationships, many veteran authors are hearing from educators that they face great pressure not to bring in any “controversial” speaker. Whether they’re being told they cannot or are self-censoring because of circumstances, the impact is the same.

Alex London has not been getting invited to schools
as he has in the past. Photo credit: Sonya Sones

“I went from doing a lot of school visits every year to none, not one in-person one scheduled,” says Alex London, author of “Battle Dragons” series and other titles spanning from picture books to YA. “I've had sort of backchannel discussions with people and with librarians at two schools I've been to before, who say ‘We would love to have had you back, but we can't. We can't invite you. It's not in our hands anymore.’ Then I've had things that were canceled because of COVID and not rescheduled. Of course, I don't know why. Budgets? It could be COVID. That's what's so insidious about it—at a certain level you never know is it just normal book-related things or is it because of the political climate?”

With some districts, the invitation comes, but an accompanying contract limiting what an author can discuss is a dealbreaker.

“I am absolutely certain there are going to be state schools where I am no longer welcome to visit, and, the fact of the matter is, I won't agree to be censored,” says Ahmed. “I know that there are some states and schools and districts which will specifically say there are things you are not allowed to say. They want that in the contract. And I just will not agree to that. It's kind of a tough situation, because I want to meet with those students, and, in some ways, schools and districts and states where the book banning is really reaching this kind of fever pitch are places where it is important for me to speak to young people. But at the same time, I have to balance that against whether I'm going to allow myself to be censored.”

Author Brandy Colbert recently wrote an article for the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom website about a similar situation with a Texas school where she was scheduled to speak. Originally, she was told she could not speak about her most recent book, Black Birds in the Sky. The district eventually said she could speak about it in her presentation, but the book was “too controversial” to give to their students. Instead, the district planned to purchase a backlist Colbert book. In response, Colbert pulled out of the event.

“Though it hurt to miss out on a chance to speak to high school students, I decided to remove myself from the event in Texas,” she wrote. “Refusing to share a specific work of mine with their students was a form of book censorship.”

Colbert wrote Black Birds in the Sky about the Tulsa Race Massacre in part “out of sheer frustration that so many historical moments and events in Black American history have been sanitized at best and intentionally buried at worst,” she said in her post.

Sharing these stories and why authors wrote them is one of the things authors can do to try to combat this wave of censorship attempts, says London.

“I write fantasy and sci-fi adventures that have queer characters in them,” he says. “I can talk about why I did that, so that people in their communities know I'm not doing it as a part of any agenda, other than normalizing that queer kids get to ride dragons and get to be heroes.”

Maybe then, he says, someone within the community can stand up and say, “Hey, this is why this book and these stories matter.”

“It really does have to come from the community,” says London. “As authors, all we can do is share our books, share the thinking behind them, and continue to try and include all kinds of kids in all kinds of stories.”

In the meantime, these battles are taking a professional and personal toll on authors just as they have on educators.

“To be honest, my confidence has been sort of crushed,” says London, who quickly adds that it’s not going to change what he writes. “But it has led me to wonder, am I ever going to get to do school visits again?”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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