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Canadian Author of Kid Activists Speaks Up About School Cancellation Controversy

Public Support Surges for LGBTQ+ Community in Illinois Suburb

by Robin Stevenson

My story begins last fall, in the small town of Wheaton, Illinois. I was in the middle of a two-week tour, launching my middle-grade book, Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change. When I arrived at my hotel in Chicago, I was looking forward to presenting at an elementary school in the suburbs the following morning. But that night, I got a phone call from my publisher: the school in Wheaton had cancelled my visit. A parent had complained because one of the 16 historical figures featured in my book was gay activist Harvey Milk, and the school district had decided to rescind their invitation.

Quirk Books, 2019

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I encountered these kinds of challenges when I promoted my books about Pride. But while those books focused on LGBTQ+ issues, Kid Activists merely focuses on a diverse list of individuals and social justice movements, and I did not anticipate controversy in any way. In fact, Illinois had recently passed legislation that required schools to include LGBTQ+ people in the history curriculum, so my book should have been a great fit. However, that legislation wouldn’t take effect until July 2020—and apparently this school, located in a very conservative community, was not going to be inclusive any sooner than required.

I was still on tour, but knew I needed to respond. Two weeks later, now back in Canada, I got a message from a student in the district who had heard about the cancellation and the reason for it. The student had been thinking about coming out, but was now feeling less safe because of the adult bigotry in the community. This letter pushed me to act: I needed to speak up publicly about the real harm caused by the school district’s decision. I wrote an open letter to the superintendent and the school board and published it on my rarely used blog. To my surprise, it got a lot of media attention. The school district initially denied that the cancellation was due to LGBTQ+ content, but later, after several freedom of information requests were filed, they admitted the truth. Soon I was hearing from hundreds of parents, students, teachers, librarians and community members. While there was the inevitable homophobic unpleasantness, most messages were supportive. I heard from queer teens who’d faced bullying, parents who wanted their kids to get an inclusive education, teachers trying to create a safer climate in their schools, and counsellors and psychologists concerned about the impact of homophobia and transphobia on young people.

Then I received an invitation to return—not from the school district, but from State Representative Terra Costa Howard, who had the support of Illinois’s civil rights organization, Equality Illinois. So, three days later, I found myself flying back to the area. I met families, signed books in a packed bookstore and talked to an enthusiastic crowd in a local high school’s auditorium. The most moving moments for me were meeting the people, especially the queer teens and supportive parents, who had reached out online. I was also happy to meet librarians, teachers, and representatives from the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, who had been supportive throughout this time.

A few weeks after I returned home, I was invited back yet again—this time to give the keynote talk and two workshops about LGBTQ+ inclusion at a conference for Illinois educators. So, in February, I found myself in Bloomington, Illinois, talking to teachers about strategies for creating more inclusive and supportive classrooms, curricula and schools, discussing the challenges of doing this work, and sharing both research and personal experiences to emphasize its importance.

Ultimately, the initial cancellation of my talk at one elementary school hugely amplified my message. Not only was I given the opportunity to speak to many educators and community members in person, but the story was heavily covered by the media in Illinois—and even reached across the states and into Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. I heard from LGBTQ+ people and allies around the world. And in Wheaton, where it all began, the cancellation and the media flurry that followed sparked many people to act to create change. Teens organized in their high schools. A student made T-shirts that read: “Dear CUSD 200, queer youth exist. Let us be heard.” Parents started a Facebook group to discuss strategies for change. And one young man, Jacob Kniep, started a new organization, OUTspoken Leaders, whose goal is “to serve, empower, and amplify the voices of all LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.” He also led the #WheatonProud campaign, forming a coalition of local businesses working to create a more inclusive community. In 2020, Wheaton’s mayor proclaimed Pride Week for the first time ever, and downtown businesses decorated their windows with rainbows and other symbols of Pride to show their support. Next year, Jacob hopes that Wheaton will hold its first Pride March.

The lessons I learned are worth sharing. I was reminded that book challenges cause tremendous pain: I’ll never forget the anguish in many of the emails I received from LGBTQ+ people and their allies in Wheaton. I discovered that while some people will attempt to censor books like mine, far more people support LGBTQ+ rights and social justice. We cannot—as authors, teachers or librarians—give too much power to a small group of vocal bigots. And I learned that an attempt to censor, if challenged publicly, can lead to positive change. People who believe in equality and inclusion may be moved to act when bigotry in their community suddenly becomes more visible.

LGBTQ+ books are the most often challenged. In 2019, eight of the 10 books on the ALA’s most challenged book list had LGBTQ+ content. But they are only the tip of the iceberg: the homophobia and transphobia that leads to these challenges are there, just below the surface, all the time. For every time a book is contested in a library, how many libraries opt to avoid controversy by not shelving it? For every cancelled visit, how many schools simply choose not to invite queer authors and authors of books with queer content? This soft censorship is both insidious and commonplace.

Robin Stevenson

LGBTQ+ books are much needed, and young people in conservative, homophobic, transphobic communities—the communities most likely to restrict access—may need them most of all. My experience in Illinois showed me that even in these communities, there is enormous support for inclusion. We need to find ways to mobilize that support. Instead of just responding when books are challenged, we need to take the initiative to make sure that our kids’ teachers, principals and school boards know that we want our children to learn about the world in a way that includes LGBTQ+ people. We need to make it clear that we expect to see queer people and families represented on library shelves and in classrooms. And we need to support, include and promote LGBTQ+ books and authors all the time—not just when they are challenged.

Robin Stevenson is the award-winning author of 29 books, which include board books, picture books, early chapter books, middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, and young adult fiction and non-fiction. She is a GG finalist, Silver Birch Award winner, four-time B.C. Book Prize finalist and the 2020 winner of the Sheila A. Egoff Award for her non-fiction book My Body My Choice: The Fight for Abortion Rights. Her book Pride was a Stonewall Honor book, and her board book Pride Colors was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. Robin has three books coming out in 2021: a picture book called Pride Puppy (Orca), a middle-grade non-fiction book called Kid Innovators (Quirk) and a teen novel called When You Get the Chance (Running Press Kids). Robin lives on Vancouver Island.

Robin Stevenson photo by Stephanie Hull, Centric Photography