Cancel Culture Dominates Children’s Literature

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 2016 Scholastic canceled the children’s book “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” two weeks after publishing it. The book’s images of smiling enslaved people set off a social-media tsunami and a petition demanding cancellation. It didn’t matter that the illustrator was black, or that the editor, Andrea Pinkney, was black and also a towering figure in the children’s book world.

What mattered was that a social-media mob could force a major publisher to stop distributing a book. When the news broke, one of my editors phoned. I had a contract with him for a children’s book about slavery, and though he’d approved the final draft, he was nervous. It didn’t matter that my manuscript did the opposite of sugarcoating slavery. It didn’t matter that I had won awards for “Lillian’s Right to Vote,” one of many books I’d written on racial justice. My editor worried about public perception of a book “by a white male author, edited by a white male editor, about a white male slave owner.” Seventeen months later, after many pointless revisions, the contract was canceled. No book.

Scholastic’s cancellation marked the beginning of a brave new children’s book world, as detailed in PEN America’s 2023 report, “Booklash.” So-called progressive activists discovered they had power through social media, and they wielded it, assailing book after book with charges of offensiveness and demands for cancellation. Children’s publishers now live in fear of these activists, terrified of showing up on their radar with a book or author that could be deemed “problematic”—meaning out of alignment with the activists’ puritanical code.

According to that code, an author’s identity must match a book’s subject matter. Further, certain books can harm children, the activists believe, and books they deem harmful must be removed. If that sounds eerily similar to the right-wing activists’ mission, it’s because it is. The only difference is that while right-wing activists merely want certain books removed from particular schools, left-wing activists want the books they target annihilated.

In 2017 an initially much-praised book of mine about the atom bomb was attacked with the inaccurate charge of having “erased” American Indians. The social-media mob weighed in and the book went from getting rave reviews and being predicted as a Caldecott Medalist to fading into obscurity. I wrote an essay describing my experience, which was published in February 2019. Two months later, Debbie Reese, the blogger who had led the campaign, attacked me again—in her Arbuthnot Lecture, awarded to her by the powerful American Library Association—for not withdrawing my book after what she called her “criticism” of it.

One month later, I wound up on a sort of blacklist on a blog called Reading While White. The contributors—liberal white people who call out other liberal white people for racism—accused me and some other white authors, with no evidence, of “racism—in words, works, and deeds.”

That same year, Time Magazine named one of my books, “The Sad Little Fact,” a Best Book. The Washington Post named my biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall a Best Book. Yet since then I’ve amassed a pile of rejections on a wide range of topics. Editors tell me they can’t publish anything by me about “people of color or women”—the subjects of my most popular works. Editors say publishers mainly want books about “marginalized people,” but the authors’ identities must match the subject matter. My former main editor praised my writing but suggested that if he gave me a contract he would be taking away a “slot” from “previously underrepresented minorities.”

It is mind-blowing that this happened to me—an author who devoted his career to promoting diversity long before it became publishers’ singular focus. And it’s ironic that most of the people behind the pile-ons, petitions and cancellations are white—and privileged. Even more ironic: Many victims of cancel culture are “previously underrepresented minorities”—nonwhite, gay or lesbian authors, who have tended to self-cancel after being targeted by social-media pile-ons. Among them are Kosoko Jackson, E.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Amélie Wen Zhao.

This isn’t progress. The campaign to bring diversity to children’s books must be separated from cancel culture, from social-media mobs, from the vitriolic intolerance toward any dissenting opinions that veer at all from the new orthodoxy.

I say this as a lifelong liberal, whose books have been removed from library shelves in right-wing school districts.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The author of the WSJ piece is Jonah Winter, an author of very popular children’s books.

Here’s a link to Mr. Winter’s books.

Following are some of Mr. Winter’s most popular books. PG is going to buy some of them for his grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “Cancel Culture Dominates Children’s Literature”

  1. This goes back to something I’ve said before, but I’ll say it again:

    In the current moment, right-wing censorship is the dumb kind, where you take the books off the shelves, while left-wing censorship is the smart kind, the one where you make sure the books don’t get to the shelves, or even published, in the first place.

    • That is an appropriate evaluation – if the goal is the establishment of a uniform collective tyranny.

      I’ll stick with the “dumb” kind, thank you.

      • Well, yes, I thought that went without saying.

        I prefer the former myself, because that way there can actually be discussion about the matter.

    • I think would-be censors use the levers they can access, T.

      Differences in right-wing/left-wing censorship methods you describe may reflect differences in power vis-a-vis the New York publishing establishment.

  2. I am curious. How is this not a violation of the WSJ’s copyright? This was only just published on Monday, February 5th in the Wall Street Journal and you’ve copied out everything verbatim except for five sentences at the end of the article. I understand you’re going for “compilation copyright” here, but I don’t really see how this is creatively compiled with similar articles.

    You might consider including Debbie Reese’s original and updated critiques of Mr. Winter’s book, so that people may have a more established idea of her perspective and where that critique is coming from. You also might consider including Mr. Winter’s various other opinion pieces about this same topic – those from the NY Times, and the Dallas News. All of these pieces make meaningful points about the publishing industry and the rights of authors and readers.

    • Thanks for your comment, J.

      By statute – 17 U.S. Code § 107 – determining whether a use constitutes fair use or not depends on four factors:

      Factor 1: The Purpose and Character of the Use
      Factor 2: The Nature of the Copyrighted Work
      Factor 3: The Amount or Substantiality of the Portion Used
      Factor 4: The Effect of the Use on the Potential Market for or Value of the Work

      I’m comfortable that the balancing of these factors makes my use as fair use under the statute and cases. As an additional point of reference, I’ve made over 22,000 posts on TPV and have never received a complaint from anyone about my posts violating a copyright they own.

      If I receive any comment from a copyright holder, it’s in the nature of, “I wondered why visits to my website exploded. Then I found out you featured it in one of your posts. Thank you.”

      My claim of compilation copyright is intended to cover the collection of all 22,000 posts or a substantial portion thereof, not any single post standing alone.

  3. My sister never believed me when I told her that I watched cancel culture start up in YA lit, but like, for real, anyone who paid attention saw that cancer grow. I’m glad he’s raising awareness of this kind of censorship that normal people might pay attention to.

Comments are closed.