Author whose Dist. 200 invitation was rescinded speaks in Glen Ellyn about LGBTQ issues
A reminder of why children's book author Robin Stevenson has spent nearly a decade traveling to schools and meeting young people came after a keynote speech she gave at a conference on the history of Pride celebrations.
Afterward, one teen approached her, looking kind of angry.
"She said, 'She hadn't known any of this,'" Stevenson remembered. "'Why didn't we hear this in schools?'"
It's a question being asked again after Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 abruptly canceled Stevenson's visit over concerns with LGBTQ content in her new book, "Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change."
More than a month after the district called off her appearance, Stevenson got another chance to talk about her work as a writer and her advocacy. She addressed roughly 100 people Wednesday night at District 87's Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn. State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, a Glen Ellyn Democrat, invited Stevenson to return to DuPage County "to show the world that our communities embrace the values of honesty, respect and inclusiveness."
"When I heard about this situation, I thought that the people of our communities, both the adults and the children, deserved to hear from this award-winning author and what she has to say," Costa Howard said in introducing Stevenson.
In Wheaton, Stevenson didn't intend to talk about LGBTQ representation in children's books and school curriculum. But she addressed those issues extensively Wednesday in front of an audience that included District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler and five school board members.
"Schools have always been a place where the struggle for LGBTQ rights has been at times an uphill battle," Stevenson said.
Her new book is a collection of stories about the early lives and role models of 16 activists through history, "a timely topic," Stevenson said.
"The people in this book are black, white, Hispanic, South Asian, and indigenous," Stevenson said. "They're Jewish, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker and Muslim. About half are women, one is disabled. One's gay. One's bisexual. One's transgender."
That representation matters for kids who are LGBTQ+ themselves or whose families are, Stevenson said, because those stories reduce any sense of isolation they might feel, provide positive affirming messages about their identity and can counter negative stereotypes.
"Research shows that LGBTQ students who attend schools with inclusive curriculum have a better climate in the school and are more successful academically," she said.
Stevenson wants the book to inspire "some important conversations," but she originally imagined those conversations would take place in classrooms and not through the media.
The Canadian writer was supposed to talk with about 175 third- through fifth-graders at Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton last month, an event planned since late July. But the night before her Oct. 2 appearance, the district rescinded the invite.
Stevenson wrote a widely circulated letter citing a parent's complaint over a chapter on pioneering gay rights activist Harvey Milk as the reason for the cancellation. Longfellow's librarian also told an Anderson's Bookshops employee that the administration had her ask specifically if Stevenson would include Harvey Milk in her presentation after a parent raised a concern.
At the school's request, Stevenson provided a list of activists featured in her talk. She didn't plan to discuss Milk and instead was going to focus on civil rights leaders. But the district still canceled.
The district initially blamed the decision on the "lack of appropriate notification of the author's visit." Schuler later confirmed that stories about gender identity in the book caused concerns. He also pointed to a chapter about Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist.
"The topic itself is not inherently controversial," Schuler said last week. "But for us, I think it's a question of at what age is that topic introduced. It's not currently in our curriculum, and it's not currently a topic that's discussed across the system with students starting in third grade."
Before her talk at Glenbard West, Schuler was tight-lipped about why he decided to attend, but he said he will meet directly with Stevenson Thursday.
"I'm just here to be a part of the event this evening," Schuler said. "So kind of where we go as a district, in terms of steps that we take to move forward from this, we're working on that."
Claire Cruz, who lives in Wheaton but not in District 200, brought her 7-year-old son to Stevenson's talk and a book signing beforehand at The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn.
"I just wanted him to hear, even at a young age, about all the people who have struggled before us to get us to where we are now and that there's so much work to be done," Cruz said.
Since the district canceled her visit, Stevenson said she's been overwhelmed by the support she's received. Equality Illinois also helped pay for her airfare to bring her to Glen Ellyn.
"It's wonderful to know that there are so many people out there who are valuing diversity, who want to see inclusive schools and who are willing to speak up for LGBTQ students, LGBTQ equality," she said.
Stevenson also read excerpts from the chapter about Milk, sharing stories about his childhood interests (opera) and influences before he became one of the country's first openly gay politicians elected to office. He was assassinated in 1978.
"Harvey hung out with the other jocks, but he didn't have any close friends, maybe because he was having to hide something important about himself," Stevenson read. "Decades later, one of his high school classmates recalled, 'When we were young people, we didn't know there was such a thing as gayness. If Harvey knew this, he had to face it all by himself.'"
Stevenson said she tries to write about social injustice and trailblazers in ways that kids can relate to and understand.
"Although this book touches on some tough issues, I think it's ultimately a hopeful book," she said. "It's about people who faced challenges, who went through difficult times and who stood up for what they thought was right.
"And I hope it will inspire young readers to do the same."