Are Gatekeepers Giving Up The Fight Against Book Bans?: Book Censorship News, October 20, 2023

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

In July 2024 — nine years ago — We Need Diverse Books was founded. The nonprofit dedicated to addressing the lack of diversity in publishing emerged in response to yet another major book event showcasing a slate of white authors as their stars…plus Grumpy Cat. The movement to call out the whiteness of the industry was not new, but that year, it hit a fever pitch.

Malinda Lo tracked queer YA books published starting in 2011, continuing in 2012, 2013, and pulling together a great chart documenting change in this category between 2003 and 2013. Lo also tracked diversity in the YA bestsellers, as seen in Publishers Weekly in 2012, as well as diversity within the Young Adult Library Services Association’s annual Best Fiction for Young Adults list. Her number crunching on The New York Times Best Seller List in YA for 2013 made clear how few authors of color and characters of color were being given the budgets to succeed, if they were being published in any representative manner by the industry at all.

Earlier in 2023, I took the time to revisit the trends within The New York Times YA Best Sellers List on its tenth anniversary, and the rise in diverse books was impossible not to see — and impossible not to attribute to the tireless work of authors, readers, and advocates of color:

  • 1,347 diverse books were represented on the list

In isolation, what does this number even mean? 1,347 books out of 4,446 were diverse. This comes out to about 30% of the total titles were by authors of color. Not too bad, given that the U.S. population itself is roughly 40% people of color.

More interesting, though, is the TREND in diverse books.

  • 2012: 2 diverse books
  • 2013: 2 diverse books
  • 2014: 1 diverse book
  • 2015: 20 diverse books
  • 2016: 52 diverse books
  • 2017: 165 diverse books
  • 2018: 182 diverse books
  • 2019: 228 diverse books
  • 2020: 258 diverse books
  • 2021: 244 diverse books
  • 2022: 193 diverse books

In 2017, we saw the publication of Angie Thomas’s phenomenal The Hate U Give, which remained on and off the bestseller list up until the last year. We saw diverse books hit their peak in representation on the list in 2020, and they have been slipping back down again in the last two years. In 2020, diverse books represented almost half of the total books on the list.

There was a noticeable dip in diverse books on the NYT list in 2021, then again in 2022. And then, just a few weeks ago, we saw the first all-white New York Times YA list in a long time:

october 8, 2023 new york times ya bestseller list

This kind of all-white list does not happen by accident. Especially when the week of new releases that this list encompasses was not only one of the busiest in YA publishing this year but also one of the most diverse.

The snow-white New York Times YA Best Seller List in October was no fluke. Just days before that list landed, Barnes & Noble decided to release their best books of 2023. Publishing a “best of the year” in early October is out of touch enough, but further salt in the wound on this was that the YA best books — again, as shared by one of the largest booksellers in the country — was a sea of white authors:

Barnes & Noble's best YA books of 2023.

I could be generous here and venture to guess that Barnes & Noble’s selectors thought they were hitting some diversity counts by including Ryan La Sala, who is regularly thought to be a person of color. That generosity might be even more insulting.

At the 2023 AISLE Conference — an annual gathering of Illinois School Librarian Educators — I had the opportunity to deliver both a keynote and a session. During the session, which explored some of the trends in book banning, a librarian raised her hand and asked if we could talk about the Scholastic Book Fair thing. Having been out of the office for over a week at that point, I was not sure what that was but quickly learned as school librarian after school librarian began to talk about how they were now being asked to check a box in order to receive Scholastic’s collection of diverse books for their book fairs. This was just a couple of weeks after I wrote about how far-right actors, including Brave Books, were jockeying to take down Scholastic Book Fairs as part of their war on information and access.

Scholastic turned their efforts not onto helping school librarians fight against the bigotry they’re experiencing by holding book fairs (not to mention having books, period) but instead, offered them a convenient way to be the ones withholding access to books. These weren’t just any books. They were the book fair’s diverse books.

After traditional working hours on Friday, October 13, Scholastic finally decided to address the rumors floating around social media about the state of their book fairs. These “rumors” began on Reddit, where school librarians were connecting with one another to talk about what was going on. Then they spilled into other forums, with dozens of writers and reporters wondering where and how to get their hands on answers.

Text from Scholastic's statement on US book fairs.

The long and short of their mealy-mouthed statement? Because legislation in different states and municipalities is a reality, they need to put the onus on library workers to choose materials that are in compliance with those laws.

In short, we know diverse books are a problem, and we’re not going to help you except to put you, the beleaguered librarians, in the position of being the bad guys.

Where some publishers like Penguin Random House have entered into the fray to help overturn book bans — see the Escambia County lawsuit in Florida — Scholastic has instead decided to step away from the three-year rise in book censorship across the country. If anything, the above statement, in conjunction with recent social media posts like the one below, suggests that rather than help their marginalized authors or the librarians who make financial decisions that are crucial for the publisher’s survival, Scholastic will bank on adult nostalgia of the book fair.

scholastic facebook post from october 15 about book fair nostalgia.

Scholastic did not post their statement regarding their bigot button on Facebook as they did in the above image. The demographics of their Facebook followers are probably pretty different than those calling them out on Twitter, so why be transparent across platforms?

Not to mention that earlier this year, Scholastic asked author Maggie Tokuda-Hall to censor one of her own books in order to license it for book fairs.

Taken in isolation, all of these incidents are bad on their own. But together, the all-white book lists, all-white bestsellers, all-white “best books,” and option to remove diverse books from book fairs say one thing: the gatekeepers have given up the fight.

They’ve given up a fight they have yet to step into. A list of resources on your website is not action or activism. It’s repeating the statements found in dozens of other places. Not putting money behind diverse authors and diverse books shows itself in those best of and bestseller lists. This year has had dozens of amazing books by authors of color that should have hit either or both of these lists — especially during the busiest season for publishing in fall — and yet, it’s a sea of white.

Book sales across YA are down, and it’s not a surprise why: those who get to make decisions and create change are falling back on laziness, failing to step up and defend those who are most vulnerable — both the authors and the young readers who need and deserve access to those books — and people who have been watching the rise of book bans by right-wing bigots now for three years are giving up on giving industries money when the message is clear that the industries don’t want their money.

We won’t get out of book banning. Those who have power and influence are too eager to capitulate to groups like Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, and the scads of others across America who’ve made a cishet white christofascist agenda their priority at the expense of any and everyone else.

What even is there to say to that other than it’s disappointing, it’s angering, and it’s not at all surprising.

Only the bottom line matters.

(I urge you to spend some time with this piece on the ways in which school book fairs breed inequity this week as well — Scholastic’s language and decisions only reinforce this reality).

Book Censorship News: October 20, 2023

It is noteworthy that a large chunk of stories this week are shoved behind paywalls. Now that the mainstream media is cooling on coverage, there’s a nice trickle-down effect, and democracy goes behind a paywall again. These gatekeepers have also given the hell up.