It was the most personal story that Maggie Tokuda-Hall had ever written: the tale of how her grandparents met and fell in love at an incarceration camp in Idaho that held Japanese Americans during World War II.
The book, called “Love in the Library,” is aimed at six- to nine-year-olds. Published last year by a small children’s publisher, Candlewick Press, it drew glowing reviews, but sales were modest. So Tokuda-Hall was thrilled when Scholastic, a publishing giant that distributes books and resources in 90 percent of schools, said last month it wanted to license her book for use in classrooms.
When Tokuda-Hall read the details of the offer, she felt deflated — then outraged. Scholastic wanted her to delete references to racism in America from her author’s note, in which she addresses readers directly. The decision was wrenching, Tokuda-Hall said, but she turned Scholastic down and went public, describing her predicament in a blog post and a Twitter post that drew more than five million views.
Tokuda-Hall’s revelations sparked an outcry among children’s book authors and brought intense scrutiny to the editorial process of the world’s largest children’s publisher. The blowup came at a time when culture wars are fueling efforts to ban books in schools — particularly books on race or sexuality — and raising questions about whether already published works should be re-edited to remove potentially offensive content.
“We all see what’s happening with this rising culture of book bans,” Tokuda-Hall said. “If we all know that the largest children’s publisher in the country, the one with the most access to schools, is capitulating behind closed doors and asking authors to change their works to accommodate those kinds of demands, there’s no way you as a marginalized author can find an audience.”
Scholastic moved quickly to contain the fallout. It apologized to Tokuda-Hall and the illustrator, Yas Imamura, and offered to publish the book with the original author’s note. Tokuda-Hall turned them down, saying that she was not convinced by the company’s efforts.
The company also delayed production of the collection that would have included “Love in the Library,” which was likely to include around 150 books by or about Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, while they evaluate what went wrong.
In the case of Tokuda-Hall’s book, Scholastic’s proposed edits included deleting a sentence where she contextualized her grandparents’ experience as part of “the deeply American tradition of racism.” The company also asked for the removal of a paragraph connecting bigotry against Japanese Americans to current and past manifestations of racism, in which Tokuda-Hall describes a culture that “allows the police to murder Black people” and “keeps children in cages on our border.”
In an email to Tokuda-Hall, which was shared with The Times, Candlewick conveyed Scholastic’s request and the company’s concern that schools might shy away from purchasing a book with such a frank comment about racism during this “especially politically sensitive” moment. On Amazon and Goodreads, some readers have complained that Tokuda-Hall’s message is too political for its young audience.
Shortly after Tokuda-Hall posted about the incident on April 12, several authors and educators who were brought on by Scholastic to consult on and curate the series that would have included Tokuda-Hall’s book condemned the company’s actions, and demanded an overhaul of the editorial process.
One of the authors who consulted on the collection, Sayantani DasGupta, resigned in protest. “They’re pre-emptively censoring the collection, saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to put out diverse stories, but we’re only going to put them out in the most palatable form’,” DasGupta said.
Similar controversies have arisen recently around efforts to remove discussions of racism from school textbooks. One textbook publisher, Studies Weekly, faced criticism after it revised an elementary school textbook so that Rosa Parks’s story no longer included references to segregation or race.
But many were shocked to hear that a leading commercial publisher like Scholastic was seeking such revisions.
More than 650 librarians and educators, who make up a large segment of Scholastic’s customer base, sent a petition to Scholastic demanding that the company release the book in its original form and “take public responsibility for the decision to censor a book.”
Jillian Heise, an elementary school librarian in Wisconsin who organized the petition, said that the original author’s note was something that young children — many of whom experience racism in their daily lives — could grapple with.
“Kids are capable of understanding at a simple level that when we treat people differently because of who they are, or how they identify, or what they look like, that that’s not fair,” she said. That conversation, she continued, “helps their self-perception and perception of the world develop with empathy.”
In an interview on Thursday, Scholastic’s chief executive, Peter Warwick, said the company will evaluate “all aspects of our curatorial approach.”
“Scholastic has done extensive publishing of diverse voices and stories, and the fact that this incident happened in the context of our diverse publishing is particularly disturbing to all of us,” Warwick said.
After Tokuda-Hall’s complaint, the company decided within 24 hours to delay the entire collection, Warwick said. It has brought in two outside experts to examine how the collection was curated and edited. The review will look at not only the series that included “Love in the Library,” but the entire “Rising Voices” program, which includes other collections like “Elevating Latino Stories” and “Celebrating Girls of Color.”
The review will examine if and how other books were edited to remove potentially polarizing ideas, Warwick confirmed.
Another author whose book was going to be featured in the same series as “Love in the Library” said that her work was edited to rephrase a line, removing an idea that some might view as politically sensitive. When Scholastic requested the change, it explained in an email to the author’s publisher that it was because of its concerns about the political climate that is driving censorship in schools, the author said.
The author asked to remain anonymous and to shield any identifying details about the edit because of an ongoing relationship with Scholastic.
The debate comes as Scholastic aims to maintain its foothold in schools, where it typically sells more than 100 million books to 35 million children a year through its fairs.
Like other publishers, Scholastic has made an effort to increase the diversity of its authors and titles in recent years. It has published groundbreaking works that feature L.G.B.T.Q. characters and tackle complex issues about race, gender, sexuality and cultural identity, including best sellers like “Heartstopper,” a graphic novel series about a romance between two high school boys.
Scholastic also licenses and distributes books from other publishers for its school-focused programs, which include its clubs and fairs and education division. Two publishing executives at other companies who have direct knowledge of licensing at Scholastic said that it is not unusual for the company to request changes to an already published text.
Typically, the requested changes involve removing crass language or violence, one publishing executive told The Times. An executive at another children’s publishing company that regularly licenses books to Scholastic said that on several occasions, Scholastic had asked for changes intended to tone down politically sensitive or potentially polarizing content. Both executives spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss editorial processes that are typically confidential.
It’s unclear how Scholastic’s editorial practices will change in the wake of the current controversy. Some authors whose work was selected for the same collection as “Love in the Library” are closely watching Scholastic’s next moves.
“This is a collection of stories that needs a wider audience,” Katrina Moore, whose book “Teeny Houdini: The Disappearing Act” was supposed to be included. “I would love to continue to participate in the collection, but I do need to feel good about how they are moving forward. So I’m watching, but I’m hopeful.”