Scholastic wanted to license her children's book — if she cut a part about 'racism'
Maggie Tokuda-Hall was thrilled when she first saw the offer from the publishing giant.
Scholastic wanted to license her 2022 children's book Love in the Library. The deal would draw a wider audience to her book — a love story set in a World War II incarceration camp for Japanese Americans and inspired by her grandparents, about the improbable joy found "in a place built to make people feel like they weren't human."
Then she read Scholastic's suggested revisions to her book, included in the same email as the offer news. Her excitement at the opportunity was almost immediately tempered.
The publisher's only suggested edit was to the author's note: Scholastic had crossed out a key section that references "the deeply American tradition of racism" to describe the tale's real-life historical backdrop — a time when the U.S. government forcibly relocated more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to dozens of internment sites from 1942-1945.
Scholastic gave its reasons for the suggested change in an email to the author and her original publisher, Candlewick Press, citing a "politically sensitive" moment for its market and a worry that the section "goes beyond what some teachers are willing to cover with the kids in their elementary classrooms."
"This could lead to teachers declining to use the book, which would be a shame," Scholastic's email said.
The deal with Scholastic was contingent on not only nixing that section, according to the author, but removing the word "racism" from the author's note entirely.
Infuriated by what she called a "horrific demand for censorship," Tokuda-Hall gave Scholastic a hard no.
The author called the offer deeply offensive in an email to Candlewick Press, which passed along Scholastic's proposal, a response she posted publicly to her website on Tuesday.
"I'm typically a very compromising person," the Oakland, Calif.-based author, who is Asian American, told NPR. "But when you omit the word racism from a story about the mass incarceration of a single group of people based on their race, there's no compromise to be had with that if you can't agree on basic facts."
Without its proper context, she said, the story "runs the risk of just being like a lovely little love story. And that's not what it is. To pretend otherwise would do a disservice not just to [my grandparents], but also to the 120,000 other people who were incarcerated at the time."
Scholastic issues an apology
Two days after the author first spoke out about the offer, Scholastic said it had apologized to Tokuda-Hall for its editing approach, in a statement sent to NPR on Thursday night.
"In our initial outreach we suggested edits to Ms. Tokuda-Hall's author's note," the company's CEO Peter Warwick wrote in a statement. "This approach was wrong and not in keeping with Scholastic's values. We don't want to diminish or in any way minimize the racism that tragically persists against Asian-Americans."
Scholastic said that during the process it had failed to consult its "mentors" for the Rising Voices collection — authors and educators from Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities — and has since reached out to them to hear their concerns. "We must never do this again," Warwick wrote.
Scholastic, which had planned to feature Love in the Library as part of its "Rising Voices Library" collection highlighting AANHPI voices, said it hopes to restart the conversation with Tokuda-Hall with the aim of sharing the book with the author's note unchanged.
It's not yet clear whether Tokuda-Hall will consider their revised offer.
"That conversation is not concluded and so I do not have any comment yet," she told NPR in an email.
The author says publishers are silencing marginalized voices
To Tokuda-Hall, her experience with Scholastic is another instance in which publishers are yielding to conservative advocacy groups in the face of recent battles over book bans and author censorship.
In one case, a Florida textbook publisher removed all explicit references to race from its lesson materials about civil rights icon Rosa Parks in order to win approval from Florida's Department of Education, The New York Times reported last month.
Publishers, she wrote on her website before the Scholastic apology, "want to sell our suffering, smoothed down and made palatable to the white readers they prioritize. ... Our voices are the first sacrifice at the altar of marketability."
It's impossible to put a price on what Tokuda-Hall may sacrifice from rejecting the deal with Scholastic, a trusted, powerhouse publisher in the children's market that affords authors exposure. She feared that speaking publicly about the offer could harm her reputation and career.
"Children's book authors — we're fighting over nickels. It's not exactly gangbusters, this industry," she said. "So, when you're presented with any opportunity to get your story, and particularly a story that you deeply believe in, in front of more eyes, it's a huge opportunity."
But she thinks kids and their families have the most to lose from situations like this.
"I think they're losing the opportunity to talk about the truth, to learn the truth, to discuss it," she said. "No substantive change for the better can be made without reconciliation with the truth."
Since going public with her experience, the author says, she's heard from other marginalized writers and people in the publishing industry — largely people of color and queer people, she says — who have also had to make difficult choices about their work and how its presented.
"My DMs have been absolutely full," she said. "People sharing pretty horrific stories that they're just too afraid to share in public."
Some authors and others in the publishing world responded publicly in support of Tokuda-Hall.
"By refusing to let this story be situated in context of government oppression and enslavement of other marginalized groups, past and present, It makes it safe for them to say 'historically, mistakes were made, but look at how successful Japanese American communities are now,' " literary agent DongWon Song tweeted. "This is white supremacy. This is how it operates."
Author Martha Brockenbrough has collected close to 400 signatures on a letter to Scholastic calling on the publisher to feature Love in the Library without edits.
Before she received Scholastic's apology, Tokuda-Hall said that, whether or not the publisher apologizes, her "greatest fear is that this is a momentary flurry of outrage, but nothing changes. And other creators are asked to make horrible choices like this going forward in the dark."
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