The Cancellation of Plum Creek

Nebraska Literary Festival Implodes As Authors Battle Anti-LGBTQ Discrimination

The Plum Creek Literacy Festival has imploded after multiple authors pulled out of presenting at its fall event, citing the organizers’ and host site’s anti-LGBTQ actions and policies.

The festival, founded in 1996 and hosted by Nebraska’s Concordia University, typically draws as many as 10,000 children and adults over two days. It cancelled this year’s festival after an exodus of authors and illustrators who criticized the school’s prohibitions against homosexuality and questioned why organizers did not include books with LGBTQ themes on the event’s sale site.

Censorship fights that make news often feature angry parents lodging complaints against books. The Plum Creek Literacy Festival’s response spotlights a quieter form of censorship: erasure.

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Author Eliot Schrefer, a two-time National Book Award finalist, was the first to speak up. Invited in 2017, Schrefer was looking forward to being part of the 2021 event. Organizers asked him to provide eight to 10 of his titles that they could feature on the festival’s sale site. He submitted a list of 10 books that included his award-winning Ape Quartet series and his newest book, The Darkness Outside Us.

Plum Creek

Published in June, The Darkness Outside Us is a space thriller with queer romance that earned a starred review from Booklist. It was missing from the festival’s sale list.

“I just thought it was left off accidentally,” Schrefer recalled in a phone interview with Book and Film Globe. “So I emailed the director to see if he could give me any clarification.”

While waiting for a response, he noted a similar gap in the list for author A.S. King. Missing was one of her biggest hits: Ask The Passengers, which features a girl falling in love with another girl.

Concerned, Schrefer started Googling and found the Concordia student handbook. In it, the university quotes the Bible, states that God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman, and lists disciplinary consequences for “offenses” that include “active participation in a homosexual lifestyle.” The school is a private university in Seward, Neb., founded by the Lutheran church’s Missouri synod.

“My stomach dropped away when I saw it,” Schrefer said. “This was actively discriminatory.”

Still, he hoped that the festival’s executive director, Dylan Teut, would have an explanation or be able to draw distinctions between the event and the university’s policies. But instead, Schrefer said, he received an ever-evolving series of answers that raised even more concerns.

“It went from being that it was a pure mistake, just a cut-and-paste error, to that since I was presenting to a middle-grade audience, it wasn’t included because it was a YA,” he said. Other middle-grade presenters had their young-adult books listed, however, as author Anne Ursu detailed in a series of tweets eviscerating the festival’s shifting responses.

Schrefer, who remembers finding kinship in books as a closeted teen, had hoped to serve as positive representation. But he couldn’t square with attending a festival at a school that didn’t want him to exist. On Sept. 20, he tweeted out a thread explaining his absence.

The reaction was immediate. Several authors joined Schrefer in cancelling their presentations. Illustrators pulled their art from the event’s fundraising auction. Independent bookstores Chapters Books & Gifts in Seward and Wisconsin’s River Dog Book Co. held book drives for LGBTQ-themed books. On the night of Sept. 22, the festival announced it was canceling this year’s event.

Teut, who set his social media accounts to private as Schrefer’s initial thread gained traction, said in a statement emailed to Book and Film Globe that the festival has always included a diverse range of authors: “The mission of Plum Creek has always been to further literacy, and this includes learning through stories and realities of diverse people and perspectives.”

The statement went on to blame Schrefer: “An author whose book was not included in the book sale list came to an inaccurate conclusion that it was excluded for discriminatory reasons, which was not the case. …Unfortunately, the author’s conclusion eventually led to additional authors cancelling their engagements.”

Yet scheduled presenter Varian Johnson said in an interview that he also tried to get assurances from Teut about the festival’s support of LGBTQ people.

“(Teut) was saying that the policy doesn’t reflect Plum Creek,” said Johnson, author of middle-grade novels that include Coretta Scott King honoree The Parker Inheritance and the forthcoming Playing the Cards You’re Dealt.

“I said, ‘That’s great, but that’s not good enough. You’re hosting this festival on this campus with this policy. That is a problem. If you’re saying you don’t agree with this policy, then say that publicly. If you guys think it’s wrong and you can’t change it now, but you can apologize or look into it–just give me something,” Johnson pleaded. When the festival made a public statement that didn’t address the university’s policy or underscore support of LGBTQ people, Johnson knew he had to cancel.

“For me as an author of color, as a Black man, I want to be there as an author not only for kids who look like me, but for those who don’t look like me,” he said, echoing the thread he tweeted Sept. 24. “But I can’t be a good ally–I can’t look at my friends, my family, my colleagues and say that I’m an ally, and then step foot on that campus.”

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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