Brad Meltzer is a prolific, multimedia best-selling author and creator of dozens of legal and historical thrillers, television shows, TED Talks, comic books and children’s books, among many other pursuits.
But he never imagined that two of his children’s books in his “Ordinary People Change the World” series would stir a free speech controversy.
He learned in September that the Central York School Board in Pennsylvania had vetoed a list of resources that were suggested last year for use in the wake of the George Floyd murder and civil unrest. The list, which included Meltzer’s books “I am Rosa Parks” and “I am Martin Luther King Jr.,” was “frozen” for some time, as board members put it. The board eventually nixed the list, asserting that the materials were divisive. In August of this year, one school principal circulated the list and said, “Please see the attached list of resources that are not to be permitted to be utilized in the classroom.”
Meltzer learned the news through his social media sites, he said in an interview. “People started telling me they banned our books on Rosa Parks and Dr. King.” He was stunned. After all, the books were meant to “help kids build character, kindness and compassion one real hero at a time,” as Meltzer put it on his website. Among the heroes featured in the series along with Parks and King are Neil Armstrong, Benjamin Franklin, Jane Goodall, Jackie Robinson and Lucille Ball. Aimed at ages 5 to 8, the books are illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos.
“People were of course shocked that anyone would ban heroes” like Parks and King,” Meltzer said. “Soon, Fox News called and asked me to come talk about it. Then CNN did the same. When Fox and CNN agree, I think the school board realized they screwed up.”
Board President Jane Johnson said, “What we are attempting to do is balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature, and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content.”
Meltzer viewed the controversy as a First Amendment issue. “Race is a hard subject, but if you don’t talk to kids about race, you’re doing them a disservice.”
Meltzer moved quickly to fight the ban. He helped residents gather hundreds of the “not-to-be-permitted” books to be placed in Little Free Library locations in the area. Students also protested.
“Really, it was the amazing students in the community who fought to bring these books back,” he said. Meltzer, who lives in Florida, went to the school board meeting in September and read aloud from “I am Rosa Parks.”
The board voted unanimously to allow access to the books. “We speak and listen to parents and community members to better understand and address concerns,” said board member Jodi Grothe, according to the York Dispatch. “We have heard you.”
Meltzer offered advice for those who are experiencing similar book bans, which have multiplied across the country as legislators and school boards ban race-related educational materials that might make students uncomfortable.
“Take the lessons of Dr. King and Rosa Parks,” Meltzer said, “Do not stand for this. Protest. These bans are only going to increase. They are born out of fear and they work because people are scared. Look at the words they use to justify them: ‘Indoctrinating your children.’ The word indoctrination has been used throughout history to target the Black community, the Jewish community, the gay community and so many more. Don’t let them divide us. Do not stand for it.”
Fighting a book ban exercised and defended First Amendment freedoms!
Locals assembled by organizing book drives and student protests. Meltzer petitioned by speaking before the school board. They all defended free speech and press freedom by opposing censorship of books based on the ideas in them.
What is next for Meltzer? “I’ll write even more on this issue,” he said. His latest “I am” book, out Oct. 21, features Oprah Winfrey.
“In February,” Meltzer added, “we have ‘I am Malala Yousafzai’ and ‘I am Muhammad Ali,’ purposely to teach protests. And wait until you see who’s coming after that.”
Tony Mauro is a special correspondent for the Freedom Forum.