Last month, Robin Stevenson was scheduled to visit Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton, Ill., as part of a promotional tour for her upcoming book, Kid Activists.
The night before her October 2 talk, she says, her publisher told her the visit had been canceled.
“The reason given was that a parent had complained because one of the activists included in the book is Harvey Milk,” Stevenson wrote in an open letter posted on her website on Tuesday.
Stevenson, the author of more than 25 books for children and teenagers, explains that the book explores the childhoods of 16 activists, including Federick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Autumn Peltier, and Helen Keller. The book’s cover features a cartoon version of Harvey Milk waving a rainbow flag — and this, Stevenson says, apparently presented an issue.
“In choosing to cancel the presentation, you denied 175 students the opportunity to hear a presentation from an award-winning children’s author. You legitimized a concern rooted in homophobia, gave this priority over the wishes of the school administration and staff who had requested the visit, and made the climate in the school less safe for LGBTQ+ staff and students,” Stevenson wrote in her letter, which was addressed to District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler and the district school board.
Stevenson says that the decision hurt LGBTQ students who attend District 200 schools. “As a result of homophobic comments made by adults in their community regarding my book and canceled visit, they are now feeling apprehensive and afraid to do so,” she said.
As Stevenson acknowledges in her letter, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker signed a law this year requiring public schools to teach LGBTQ history starting in 2020.
District officials claim that Stevenson’s visit was canceled because the school had not given parents adequate information about the content of her visit.
“The event was not canceled because of a specific character in the book; the event was canceled based on the lack of appropriate notification of the author’s visit,” wrote District 200 spokesperson Erica Loiacono in a Medium post on Thursday.
“Parents/guardians were not provided a sufficient opportunity to review the information and determine whether they wanted their child to participate in the program. Parents were only informed of the author’s visit, not the content of the book, presentation and promotion,” said Loiacano.
Loiacano also says officials made an effort to contact Stevenson’s representatives ahead of time.
Stevenson isn’t convinced, according to the Daily Herald. She said to reporter Katlyn Smith that district employees have told her anonymously "the reason they were given was the talk was too controversial."
A local bookstore owner sponsoring the appearance told the Herald that this was only the third time in as many decades that a district had canceled an author’s in-school presentation. She described herself as “horrified” by the incident.
“This action sends a very harmful message to students, particularly students who are themselves LGBTQ+ or have family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. It says that their lives can’t be talked about, that their very existence is seen as shameful or dangerous,” wrote Stevenson.
“It says that no matter how significant their accomplishments, or how much they contribute to the world, they can be erased and made invisible because of who they are,” she continued.