MIAMI — When South Florida writer Brad Meltzer learned that a Pennsylvania school board had banned his books “I am Rosa Parks” and “I am Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he knew he couldn’t ignore it.
“If you’re taking the lessons of Rosa Parks, you have to fight back,” said the creator of the Ordinary People Change the World series, which profiles historic figures including Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller and Neil Armstrong for kids. The next in the series, “I am Oprah Winfrey,” will be published in October.
“I am Rosa Parks” and “I am Martin Luther King, Jr.” — which, like the other books in the series, are illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos — were two of more than 200 anti-racism books and resources suggested by the Central York School District’s diversity education committee last year. The Central York school board vetoed the entire list. In a clip from a meeting aired by CNN, which reported on student protests of the ban, members referred to the list of reading and educational material as “divisive” and “bad ideas.”
Banned are children’s picture books, K-5 books, middle and high school books, videos, webinars, and web links, including a memoir by Pakistani writer and activist Malala Yousafzai; a book by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; an adaptation of “Hidden Figures,” about Black female mathematicans at NASA; “Sulwe” by actress Lupita Nyong’o, about a little girl who fears her skin is too dark, and CNN’s “Sesame Street Town Hall” about racism.
With no change this fall, students, parents and other community members attended a virtual school board meeting last week to debate the ban, which the school board calls a “freeze.” Senior Edha Gupta from Central York High School told CNN that the ban “was a slap in the face.” School board president Jane Johnson did not respond to emails from the Miami Herald before publication.
Meltzer, who is also the author of popular thrillers for adults, comic books and was the host of The History Channel’s “Lost History,” wondered how to respond. Then he learned that two women in the York area, Hannah Shipley and J.J. Sheffer, were calling for book donations so that they could put some of the banned books in Little Free Libraries around York. They created wishlists on Amazon.com and Bookshop.org where people could purchase the books and have them sent to York (the address is Haybrook Little Free Library, 131 Haybrook Dr., York, PA, 17406).
Meltzer immediately boosted the drive on his social media. And books started pouring in.
Shipley, a former preschool teacher, was outraged by the ban.
“These banned books cover topics like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Neil Degrasse Tyson,” she said. “The ban hits every marginalized group: Black, Asian American, Muslim, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ, disability representation, autism representation. Anything not neurotypical, straight and white. This made me upset. I was welcome to read these books to students in private daycare, but a mile and a half away, students were not allowed to read these books in school.”
Now, Shipley’s house is filling up with books; she has 1,200 at the moment, while the Amazon wishlist promises a total of 2,200 are on the way so far. That’s too many books for the Little Free Libraries to handle, so Shipley will distribute them at an upcoming rally.
“If the ban holds, I’ll roll up to a playground in a trench coat and hand them out,” she joked.
Meltzer praised the efforts of Shipley and Sheffer, saying the Ordinary Heroes series is not meant to be political but to introduce kids to famous historical figures.
“You have an all-white school board and nearly every banned book is written by or about a person of color,” he said. “Race is a hard subject, but nothing good comes out of not talking about hard subjects. If we’re saying we can’t discuss race, we’re doing our kids a disservice.”