Controversy continues to swirl around Concordia University young-adult book fair
In September, the Plum Creek Literacy Festival abruptly cancelled its event after multiple authors declined to participate, citing the festival’s erasure of LGBTQ-themed books.
Now, the festival is back – kind of. Amid discussions swirling on Twitter about its track record, Plum Creek’s 2022 roster first dwindled and then shifted dramatically.
Since the beginning of April, at least eight children’s book creators have bowed out of Plum Creek’s lineup, including Vanessa Brantley-Newton, John Bemelmans Marciano, Mitali Perkins and Jon Agee. At one point, the festival listed only six authors as presenters, with two of those designated for the adult portion of the festival. A new slate of authors and illustrators appeared in mid-April.
“When professionals (including publishers) support events that openly discriminate they normalize that discrimination,” tweeted teacher Sarah Mulhern Gross. “If Plum Creek can run why not replicate it? How long until Florida or Texas or Mississippi is home to a similar festival?”
“The thing abt the Plum Creek Festival is that, given the reasons for the cancellation of the festival last year and the glut of LGBTQIA book bans in libraries across the country in 2021-22 … the decision to hold it without any reflection, changes, or dialogue feels worse??” tweeted author and school librarian Angela Burke Kunkel.
The event has become a flashpoint as targeting of books by and about LGBTQ people spikes and intensifies. A new study from PEN America found that LGBTQ content was one of the most common reasons for book challenges in a year with record-breaking censorship numbers. The top three banned books in the American Library Association’s most recent tally all have LGBTQ content. After widespread complaints and a petition from librarians, Follett School Solutions recently abandoned a proposed change to its Destiny software that would have flagged parents when students checked out specific books and allowed parents to block students from checking out titles with certain tags, including LGBTQ.
“I wanted to make sure people had the information that this is what happened, that they censored queer books, at this particular moment when queer books and queer kids are under attack,” she said.
The author of several books for young people, including The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, Ursu teaches at Hamline University with writer Eliot Schrefer. Schrefer, a two-time National Book Award finalist, was the first to pull out of the event in 2021 after noticing that the fest’s store didn’t stock several presenters’ books that featured LGBTQ content, including his then-new release, The Darkness Outside Us.
Festival director Dylan Teut told Book and Film Globe in September that Schrefer had mistakenly ascribed the lack of LGBTQ-themed books to censorship–although when other authors asked about the festival’s support of such books, no assurances were forthcoming.
“This year, they post a new roster…there’s no acknowledgment of what’s happened, the student handbook is off the college website, and the festival has become much more explicitly tied to this particular church,” Ursu said.
The festival’s website now describes the event as a “ministry” of Concordia University, which is affiliated with the Missouri synod of the Lutheran church. Last year, the then-public student handbook detailed disciplinary offenses for “participating in a homosexual lifestyle.”
Concordia has served as the setting for Plum Creek since 1996, which has attracted as many as 10,000 people to three days’ worth of events anchored at times by luminaries of children’s literature. In 2018, the lineup included Laurie Halse Anderson; in 2019, Kate di Camillo and Jacqueline Woodson presented at the adults’ conference.
Several of the booked presenters for 2022 aren’t active on social media, Ursu noted, and might not have been aware of the fest’s issues from last year. For many children’s book creators, she said, “our horror would be to show up at a festival like this and have no idea of the history and accidentally participate and tacitly endorse it.” (In fact, last year “Hazardous Tales” series author Nathan Hale tweeted: “Just arrived in Nebraska for the Plum Creek Festival only to find that all the authors dropped out – for good reason. I stand with the authors and, clearly, will not be presenting either.”)
Award-winning literacy educator and author Kelly Gallagher agreed in 2019 to present at the 2022 festival, but cancelled in April after learning what happened last year. He tweeted out an open letter explaining his decision, sharing that this was the first time he’d pulled out of a speaking engagement.
“I contacted the festival organizer and asked two questions: 1) Can I do a session that highlights LGBTQ+ YA literature? and 2) Can I have assurances that the books I discuss will be available for sale on site?” Gallagher wrote. “The organizer responded that I was free to discuss anything at the session, but the books would not be sold.”
He concluded: “I believe change will only occur when people speak up, and I can only hope that sharing my decision publicly might help to move the needle a fraction closer to a more just and inclusive world.”
In echoes of the shifting explanations offered to fest authors in 2021, Gallagher said in a phone interview that festival director Teut told him that the festival’s policy does not allow book sales from authors who aren’t presenting.
“In the email where I told him I was not coming, I told him it was an easy fix — he could have taken my books out, and put those other books in,” Gallagher said. “Then later on he said, ‘Well, you never asked me if we could switch, you just resigned.’ Well, (he) already told me what the policy was. There was no sense in asking again.”
Book and Film Globe asked Teut about the festival’s current policies, the number of author cancellations, and if the event would be willing to book an author whose work included LGBTQ themes or if it would sell books with those themes.
His emailed response: “Thanks for your interest in the Plum Creek Literacy Festival and Concordia University Nebraska. We are preparing for this fall’s event and look forward to serving the community. Our lineup of authors, illustrators, and literacy experts continues to change. We do not have any further comments.”