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Guest Post: The Case of Censorship of Books Before They Even Get to Libraries

By Maggie Toukada-Hall


Recently, I got an email with an offer from Scholastic’s Educational Division to license Love in the Library for an AANHPI narratives collection, I was thrilled. If you’ve been in kids’ books for more than ten minutes then you are aware of the staggering reach of Scholastic. And since I’m not published by Scholastic this seemed like a thrilling opportunity. But as soon as I cleared the opening paragraph, my heart sank.


I’ve been really proud of Love in the Library’s successes. Yas Imamura’s illustrations are incredible. My publicist, Jamie Tan, of Candlewick did her job with sensitivity and respect. Our editor, Karen Lotz, helped shape the book into its best form while never demanding the story be told in a way she deemed might be more palatable. There were starred reviews, Best of 2022 lists, personal letters from people whose families had been incarcerated to whom this story means so much.


It is also true that I wish it sold more copies than it has. It’s a story I believe in, deeply, and a story that I think merits exposure– something Scholastic uniquely offers.


And Scholastic wanted to license the book! But only with a change to the author’s note. My offer was contingent upon it. Without even looking I knew what it was going to be. It was going to be the paragraph that inspires 1 star reviews from angry patriots, the one that sends them to my inbox with words unfit to repeat here or anywhere. And sure enough that was exactly what they wanted to remove.


But not only that: the word RACISM would be removed from the author’s note altogether.


They wanted to take this book and repackage it so that it was just a simple love story. Nothing more. Not anything that might offend those book banners in what they called this “politically sensitive” moment. The irony of curating a collection tentatively titled Rising Voices: Amplifying AANHPI Narratives with one hand while demanding that I strangle my own voice with the other was, to me, the perfect encapsulation of what publishing, our dubious white ally, does so often to marginalized creators. They want the credibility of our identities, want to market our biographies. They want to sell our suffering, smoothed down and made palatable to the white readers they prioritize. To assuage white guilt with stories that promise to make them better people, while never threatening them, not even with discomfort. They have no investment in our voices. Always, our voices are the first sacrifice at the altar of marketability. And excuse my language, but absolutely the fuck not.


For a moment I wondered if there was a way to edit it so we could agree on it? But then I looked at the proposed edit, the one my offer was contingent upon again. The removal of the word RACISM made it all too clear. There was no compromise to be had here. There was no way to work with this. It was a Faustian Bargain, and I couldn’t take it. And, forgive my weakness, but I cried. For the opportunity I had, just moments ago, been so thrilled to receive, gone just as fast. For my resentment of being put in a position where I had to choose between my career and my ethics. For all the other people, just like me, who are likely given these kinds of choices all the time, but who— for fear of losing future opportunities, or for fear that this is their only opportunity, or who simply cannot turn down money—take the bargain. For the pure frustration that only years of dealing with the same kind of bullshit over and over again can inspire. For the fear that this kind of limitation will be what defines my career. I cried, and I felt ashamed that I was crying and furious that I’d been made to cry by an industry that will never cry over me.


I waffled a bit, deciding if I wanted to talk about this in public. It could, I realize, smack of sour grapes, or dramatics. It could scare off an editor who sees this and thinks I’m too difficult to work with— I have a book out on submission right now. Not a chill moment to name a publisher. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit I am afraid, deeply afraid. That this will negatively impact my career in some irrevocable way. That I’ll be labeled as too sensitive or a prima donna. I am aware that reputations matter. I am aware people have faced worse. And I’m tired, and I’d rather not do any of this. It’d be easier not to.


Every time I see a marginalized creator tell the truth about what they face, I feel this way: frustrated. Furious. Disheartened. But also less alone. Each incident reminds me that we are braver than they are, even if it’s only because we have to be. And that the more of us who do this, the more likely there may come a day when we can stop doing this. I can’t imagine what that looks like, and most days I can’t believe that day will ever come. I also can’t imagine not at least trying to get there. And so, I’m making public both the proposed edit I was given (above), and the letter I sent in response (below). I hope it helps you on your way.



 


Maggie Tokuda-Hall is the author Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies, The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea, Squad, illustrated by Lisa Sterle, and Love in the Library illustrated by Yas Imamura with more books forthcoming.

She lives in Oakland, California with her husband, son, and objectively perfect dog.

She has a BA in Studio Art from Scripps College, and an MFA in Writing from University of San Francisco.


You can follow her on Twitter, @emteehall. Or on Instagram @maggietokudahall

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