HOOVER, Alabama (WIAT) – Several Alabama schools have canceled events featuring an award-winning, New York Times bestselling, Black children’s author.
The events, which were scheduled to take place during Black History Month at schools in Hoover and Alabaster City, were canceled without explanation earlier this week, according to lead author Derrick Barnes. He believes the cancellations were political, he said Thursday, and motivated by ignorance and fear.
Alabaster City Schools has not yet responded to requests for comment at the time of posting. A Hoover City Schools representative said the cancellations were due to a contractual issue.
In an email sent Wednesday, an employee of Hoover’s Bluff Park Elementary School initially notified staff that Barnes would no longer be visiting the school.
“Derrick Barnes’ plans have changed and he won’t be visiting in a few weeks,” the email read.
Barnes told CBS 42 that any implication that he pulled out of scheduled events is a “bold lie.”
Asked for comment by CBS 42, Hoover City Schools said in a statement that the cancellations were due to a contractual issue.
“The Hoover City School District apologizes for the inconvenience this has caused author DerrickBarnes and his team,” a representative wrote. “The cancellation of Mr. Barnes’ visit to Bluff Park, Deer Valley and Gwin Elementary Schools next month is due to missing a required contract on three (3) occasions. It is the district’s business practice to request contracts for services provided or goods traded.
Barnes doesn’t believe the explanation. He said the cancellations are part of a national trend to restrict access to books featuring black protagonists and books that tell the truth about American history.
“I hate it so much because, like most writers, I’m an introvert,” Barnes said. “I try to stay very low key and write the books I write and hope the kids fall in love.”
Barnes grew up in a single parent home in Kansas City, Missouri where his mother was a nurse. As a child, Barnes was an avid reader, he said, and before long he turned his attention to writing as well. He would begin his writing career as the first full-time black copywriter for Hallmark and later transition to writing books for his children.
In 2017, after publishing several other children’s books, Barnes’ picture book “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” garnered nationwide attention, earning a Newberry Honor, Caldecott Honor, Coretta Scott King Award and the Kirkus Prize.
“Crown,” the author said, was one of the books he planned to read at events that were being planned at Bluff Park, Gwin, and Deer Valley Elementary Schools in Hoover and at another elementary school in Alabaster.
His books, Barnes said, do not include rationally objectionable material. They focus on telling stories of black children that she didn’t see in the books she read growing up.
“I really try to focus on writing books where black kids do ‘splitters of life’ stuff,” she said. “When I first got into the industry, any books written by black authors that got awards were always about civil rights or slavery. No bedtime stories. No story about going to school.
Barnes said it was important for children of all races to see black children represented in literature.
“It’s important that white kids also have the ability to see kids who don’t look like them do the same things they do: have families, have people around them who love and care for them, and just do everyday things, explained Barnes.
It’s frustrating, he said, that anyone would resist such an effort.
“But if you’re black in this country and you’re an artist, that automatically makes you an activist,” he said. “Because I think ‘do you really not want me to come and talk to your children? What have I done but spread love?’”
The cancellations have been a financial blow to Barnes, he said, but money is the least of his worries. (Hoover City Schools said in a statement it plans to reimburse “travel expenses and a portion of her engagement fee.”)
“I think this is based on a lot of ignorance,” Barnes said of the cancellations.
The Alabama cancellations come amid a nationwide wave of book bans and legislative interest in limiting access to certain literature, particularly in elementary school libraries. One of the first bills pre-filed this year in the Alabama Legislature, for example, bans the discussion of “divisive concepts” in Alabama schools.
“We need it so that we can foster an ideal place for our children to go to school and get their education and not be taught things that we feel very uncomfortable hearing,” the legislation’s sponsor, Rep Debbie Wood said.
Literature isn’t always about feeling comfortable, Barnes said, but it’s outrageous to think that some children’s authors’ goal is to make white kids feel bad.
“That’s not why we spread the real story,” he said. “We talk about Fannie Lou Hammer, about Malcolm X, about Black Wall Street, because these are real people and events that really happened.”
She said she believes that when children learn the reality of American history, it can motivate them to work together — across racial lines — to make the country a better place for all. That’s what politicians are afraid of, Barnes said.
Continuing to teach a “whitewashed” version of history benefits no one, Barnes said.
“If you’re a white kid at Hoover and you’re taught stereotypical views of those who don’t look like you, how does that make us a better country?” he asked.
Barnes said the whole turn of events has been very disheartening, but that she’s heard from multiple Alabama parents who are upset about the cancellations.
“I’m happy to hear from those parents,” she said. “It gives you hope that maybe the world isn’t going completely crazy.”
Barnes still has one event scheduled in Alabama next month – author pizza at the Hoover Public Library – an event scheduled for February 7 at 5pm
Barnes said he would like anyone interested to come to the event. This includes, he said, anyone who has made the decision to cancel school visits.
“I just want to sit down with people who think it’s okay to keep their kids out of the story,” she said. “I’ve never had a visit canceled in the years I’ve been doing this. I just want to ask, person to person: What’s the matter?
UPDATE: In a statement sent after this article was published, an Alabaster City Schools representative said the system is “in communication” with Barnes’ team “to clarify the logistics and any miscommunication related to its original date.” The rep said the system still hopes to accommodate Barnes if a mutual agreement is reached.