By David Canfield
August 19, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
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ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCESCO CICCOLELLA FOR EW

In May, Jen-Petro Roy had a trip booked to Texas for a campus visit. As is standard practice for big titles, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group (MCPG), publisher of her debut novel, P.S. I Miss You, set up stops at middle schools around the U.S. for her to talk with students. But for this specific event, the school abruptly canceled. “The administrator decided that by teaching this book, [I’d] be promoting an LGBTQ ‘agenda,'” Petro-Roy, 37, says. So she didn’t go to Texas after all.

This wasn’t new for her. In liberal and conservative towns alike, schools and libraries have declined visits from Petro-Roy (who identifies as straight). P.S. I Miss You follows an 11-year-old girl who begins questioning her faith and sexuality. It contains no profanity or sexual content. Yet it’s met resistance for over a year.

EW spoke to multiple authors, publishers, and booksellers and found that Petro-Roy is far from alone. In spite of progressive advances in children’s literature, LGBTQ voices are being censored.

Middle-grade author K.A. Holt, who identifies as LGBTQ, wrote an essay for Publishers Weekly in April describing her encounters with “soft censorship”: schools giving excuses — scheduling conflicts, students’ study time — to keep her from appearing as planned. “There was no other [reason given] than the fact that [kids] had to study,” she tells EW of one recent cancellation. “I would really not have known why it [happened] if a student hadn’t tweeted at me later that evening.” The student implied that Holt, 42, was being discriminated against; after going back and forth and digging deeper, the author discovered that parents had complained about her featuring pride flags on social media. (Holt’s book at the time, Rhyme Schemer, has no LGBTQ content; her upcoming book, Redwood and Ponytail, follows two queer girls exploring their feelings for each other.)

Holt heard from other writers in response to the essay. “Schools know that if they’re going to uninvite an author…a ban gets more attention,” she says. “So we’re getting this terribly gaslight-y thing. It’s so insidious. It makes you feel a little crazy, until you start talking to other people who are like, ‘Yeah, that happened to me, too.'” One such author, Phil Bildner (A High Five for Glenn Burke), 51, who taught middle school for 11 years, was banned from a Texas district in 2016 for merely discussing a book (not his own) that included a transgender character. In his years of being published since, Bildner candidly says that things have not improved: “We are not where we need to be.”

Taylor Norman, Holt’s editor at Chronicle Books, admits the problem is “not inconsistent” for her authors. “We’ve had a few incidents, and part of the issue is that we don’t always know when this is going on,” she says. “I’ve been in publishing since 2011…. I don’t think I’ve noticed more of these types of incidents; it’s a fairly low background hum that is always a risk. The sadness is it doesn’t seem to have stopped.” Other authors echo that the problem hasn’t worsened, exactly, but believe social media has magnified its severity.

MCPG declined an interview, but a statement by its executive director of publicity, Molly Ellis, conveyed strong support for the company’s LGBTQ voices, noting they “too often” have had “negative experiences on the road based on their sexual or gender identity, or related themes in their books.”

Several booksellers declined or didn’t respond to EW’s requests for an interview. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one bookseller in a conservative town, who partners on an annual book fair with a “very large” parochial school, tells EW the school recently pulled roughly a third of the books they received for the event “because they did not mesh with the values espoused by the institution.” The bookseller continues: “[The librarian] is very business, very matter-of-fact about it: ‘This book has LGBTQ content, we can’t have that.’ It is so, so difficult to find unobjectionable content with a high enough comprehension level for eighth graders.” The bookseller then cites a specific example: Renegades by Marissa Mayer, a New York Times best-seller, was removed because “the main character has two dads.” (Amazon lists the book as appropriate for grade level 7 and up.)

All this gatekeeping, and still it’s kids who ultimately suffer. “There’s so much to say for visibility,” Holt says. “I travel around and talk to kids all over the country. If you’re living in a small town, if you’ve never seen anybody other than queer caricatures on TV, me being me — the clothes that I wear, the shoes that I wear, the haircut I have, my wife [I talk about] if they have questions — that kind of visibility, for some kids, can be a life-changing thing.”

“We can save lives,” Bildner agrees. “I didn’t come out until I was 20. These books could’ve changed the trajectory of my life.”

Perhaps Petro-Roy puts it simplest: “These aren’t ‘issues’ at all. It’s just who these kids are.”

To read more from the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble, or buy it here now. (The issue will be available on all newsstands starting August 22.) Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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