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Groups seek to replace Scholastic book fairs with books by right wing pundits, election deniers

Desks in an elementary school classroom.
Matt Slocum
FILE - In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 file photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Nesquehoning, Pa.

If activist groups from the religious right have their way, Scholastic Book Fairs in Lancaster County and beyond may soon be replaced by a new vendor offering a line of children’s books set on “Freedom Island,” a nation embroiled in a great battle between good and evil.

“Because I am not the lion I once was,” a stately lion character explained in a promotional video for the series, “we will need younger heroes to take my place as this fight for Freedom Island rages on. Younger heroes, like Bongo and his coconut cannons.”

Bongo is a character in a 2021 book by former National Rifle Association spokesperson and conservative TV host Dana Loesch. In “Paws Off My Cannon,” Loesch tells a story about “the importance of the 2nd Amendment,” according to the publisher’s website. It’s just one of about 32 books being offered as a “pro-God, pro-America” alternative.

A children's book cover reading "Paws of My Cannon" as a monkey juggles coconuts next to a wood cannon.

Scholastic has been hosting book fairs at schools across the country since 1981 and helps districts fundraise through a model that routes up to 50% of profits back into schools. But now it has come under fire from some religious conservatives after agreeing to keep books about Black civil rights icons and LGBTQ+ characters in its elementary school collection.

Upstart SkyTree Book Fairs is being promoted to replace it. But a close look at SkyTree reveals it is a distribution channel for Brave Books, a publishing house that has faced ridicule and criticism for being made up almost entirely of prominent conservative media figures.

“Cultural forces are hard at work attempting to steal the hearts and minds of your most prized possession, your children,” Brave’s website states. “This enemy would love nothing more than to leave your family weak, your children confused, and their value system destroyed.”

Scholastic spokesperson Anne Sparkman said the company values parents’ trust and takes great care in selecting a wide range of books “to meet both the high standards of educators, and the interests of kids.”

“We take pride in our unique ability to curate book fairs with books kids love while deeply respecting the role of families in helping to choose the best books for their kids,” Sparkman said in an email. “We hope the shared objective of everyone invested in children’s literacy keeps at the forefront the need to extend access to books and ensure each child can find the right book for them.”

Targeting Scholastic

The effort to build support for Texas-based SkyTree, led by actor and Brave Books author Kirk Cameron, is gaining steam. Over the past week, Cameron has been featured on Fox News, interviewed by Glenn Beck, and written about in The Washington Examiner. In those interviews, he’s criticized Scholastic Book Fairs as “obscene” and suggested schools adopt SkyTree. He said the nonprofit has its first book fair planned for early December in Virginia.

The message is getting out. Some Christian schools, like Palmyra Christian Academy in Missouri, have already dropped Scholastic and are considering SkyTree. In Oklahoma, Moms for Liberty is pushing to have Scholastic book fairs replaced with another publisher. The national parents’ rights group was an early supporter of Brave Books.

In the Lancaster County Moms for Liberty’s private Facebook group, county chair Rachel Wilson-Snyder recently shared a link to SkyTree’s website.

“Host a book fair at your school!” wrote Wilson-Snyder. “Bye Scholastic!”

One member of the Facebook group said she is “praying about this,” while another issued a call to action. “The trick is getting the school districts on board with switching from Scholastic to” SkyTree, she wrote.

That hasn’t happened yet — and across Pennsylvania, Moms for Liberty has largely failed in its mission to help get hard-right school board candidates elected. But in multiple Lancaster County school districts, Moms for Liberty-backed candidates won control of school boards. In places like Warwick School District, where Wilson-Snyder has been a vocal presence at public meetings, replacing Scholastic with SkyTree is a real possibility.

Wilson-Snyder did not respond to a request for comment.

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Scholastic is already under fire at the Berwick Area School District in Columbia County. There, school leaders have banned students from attending its next scheduled book fair during school hours. Instead, it will be held online, at night, so a parent is present. School officials are considering whether to replace the book fair altogether.

The recent controversy began when Scholastic attempted to tailor its book collections in response to a wave of book ban legislation that risked getting educators in trouble. Scholastic then moved some books into a separate collection, which gave schools an option to exclude some of the controversial books.

These books typically deal with topics such as race and gender identity. But isolating the books garnered outrage from other parents who said, to cite one example, that a story about civil rights icon Ruby Bridges — the first Black student to attend a formerly whites-only school in Louisiana — shouldn’t be segregated from other books.

The Family Policy Alliance wasn’t happy with the reversal.

“So here we are in this predicament where Scholastic is caving to the left, unfortunately,” said FPA Vice President of Education Amanda Banks in a Nov. 13 video conversation. The group, launched in 2004 by Focus on the Family, describes itself as a leader in the social conservative movement. Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Family Institute President Michael Geer serves on the group’s board, tax filings show.

“What this means is that these kids, through these book fairs, now have access to actual pornography,” said Joseph Kohm III, the group’s public policy director. Pornography, Kohm said, is as addictive and destructive as hard drugs.

“That means we’re basically exposing kids to something like heroin at 7 years old,” Kohm said. ”And that will addict them for the rest of their life if they don’t get intervention or some kind of help and healing.”

SkyTree Book Fairs

SkyTree has stepped in as an alternative with a message centered on criticizing Scholastic — but offering scant details about itself.

Unlike Scholastic, SkyTree doesn’t post online a list of the books it makes available at its fairs. SkyTree Book Fair Coordinator Brie Richards provided a short list that included “Brave Books.”

Her list also included hunting-and fishing-themed children’s author Kevin Lovegreen, the Daniel Tiger and Great Mouse Detective series published by Simon & Schuster and “The Smart Cookie” and “The Good Egg” from HarperCollins. She also mentioned “Star Wars,” though it was unclear what books she was referring to in the sprawling universe owned by Disney. Richards didn’t respond to additional questions.

A children's book cover with the title "Elephants are Not Birds" depicts an elephant imagining itself flying with wings.

She noted that books are carefully vetted, so building a full catalog will take some time.

“It may be easier to answer what type of books they will not carry, which is anything that’s not age-appropriate, uses sexually explicit language or images, causes gender-confusion, or that’s racially divisive,” Kukowski added. “Also they will not carry anything published by Scholastic.”

There are a number of ties between the two companies, Kukowski said. SkyTree President Riley Lee previously worked closely with Cameron at Brave. The idea of the “Sky Tree” itself comes from one of Cameron’s books, she noted.

On the 'Car-a-Lago' Coast

SkyTree’s message is often explicitly Christian, and Cameron and fellow actor and Brave author Kevin Sorbo are prominent figures in Christian media. However, most of Brave Books’ authors look more like the VIP list at a rally for former president Donald Trump.

Former Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer, who once falsely claimed that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history, wrote “Parrots Go Bananas!” a book about “the dangers of spreading lies,” as described on the Brave Books website.

Dinesh D’Souza, who produced the “2000 Mules” conspiracy theory film falsely claiming that Democrats stole the 2020 election, co-wrote a book called “Freedom Day, The Asher Way,” a book “that teaches kids the importance of capitalism.”

Another book following the Asher character is written by Jack Posobiec, the former One America News Network host whose ties to white nationalists were documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Posobiec wrote “The Island of Free Ice Cream,” a critique of socialism meant to teach children that “if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

A children's book cover with the title "The Island of Free Ice Cream" depicting a fox hang-gliding towards the titular island.

Former U.S. Army Gen. Michael Flynn, who tried to persuade Trump to use the military to seize voting machines and rerun the 2020 presidential election, wrote a book called “The Night The Snow Monster Attacked,” about “what makes a good leader, and a good follower.”

Of the roughly two-dozen authors in its stable, some may be less familiar but still hold large audiences online. Babylon Bee personality Ashley St. Clair has more than 800,000 followers on X, the social media site previously called Twitter. She wrote “Elephants are Not Birds,” a book the New York Post called a “rebuke to gender acceptance.”

Another children’s book, called “Unmuzzle Me, Please,” is by an author named “DC Draino,” a pen name for Rogan O’Handley, a prolific COVID-19 conspiracy theorist with 1.2 million social media followers who says he’s dedicated to fighting “Big Tech Censorship.”

Conservative blogger Elizabeth Johnston wrote “Little Lives Matter,” echoing the phrase “Black Lives Matter” used by protesters in the wake of the police killings of unarmed Black people. Like many of the books, it includes an activity: In this one, kids are asked to “defeat Culture!”

The Freedom Island universe, in which most of the stories are set, appears to be one big riff on contemporary politics. One section of Freedom Island is called “Car-a-Lago Coast,” sounding an awful lot like Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., resort and residence.

And then there’s Freedom Island’s capitol, “built deep in the heart of a swamp, and underneath its pillars lurk dark and mysterious creatures.”

If these nods to Trump aren’t explicit enough, there’s always “The Legend of Naranja” about an upcoming election, where the cover art — a humanoid orange with a leafy, swept-over hairdo — pretty much speaks for itself.

A children's book cover with the title "The Legend of Naranja" depicting an orange with the likeness of Donald Trump.

A librarian responds

To Matthew Good from Ephrata, none of the Freedom Island books sound particularly focused on children or their interests.

“For me, as a librarian, people I was buying books for were seventh and eighth graders who were anywhere from 12 to 14 years of age,” Good said. “SkyTree Book Fairs and Brave Books seem to be targeting the parents. And that was not who I was buying books for.”

Good worked at Donegal School District for 14 years. Last year, after being told middle school students would need signed permission from their parents to check out young adult novels, he resigned his position. He’s now a librarian at Ursinus College outside of Philadelphia.

Though he emphasized that he hasn’t read books from the “Freedom Island” series, he has a lot of questions. He noted that the books present as chapter books, and all of the characters in its universe are animals — two features that typically appeal to early elementary school students.

“There’s not a single human character on any of their titles,” Good said. As children get a little bit older, “they want to see characters that look like them. That’s part of developing.”

Scholastic, in contrast, offer a deep bench of selections to appeal to the interests of students from a wide range of ages and reading levels. It offers bilingual books and books in Spanish — Brave doesn’t. Scholastic also typically has the newest titles.

With Brave, the whole series appears to be only designed for one audience, Good noted.

“I look at the ones authored by Kirk Cameron, and he very clearly states, ‘We are writing with Christian, conservative values’ in each of these books,” Good said.

“And that’s not to downplay his beliefs or other people’s beliefs, but I think what I struggle with is them saying, ‘You’re trying to indoctrinate our children. We’re going to create books that indoctrinate our children.’”

This reporter’s work is funded by the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund. For more information, or to make a contribution, please visit

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