For generations, Syd Hoff’s “Danny and the Dinosaur” has offered young readers a fun, easy-to-digest tale of what life might be like with a prehistoric friend.
When creating its new language arts standards, the Florida Department of Education included the 1958 book on its list of materials for teachers seeking to include “rich and meaningful texts” in their first grade classrooms.
Adam Graham and Brian Hawley, two former Pinellas County educators, have contended the book doesn’t belong in any school — not to mention on the state recommended list. The Pinellas district has 46 copies, including Spanish and recorded versions, in various elementary libraries.
“The book is outdated, and uses racist/sexist terms, concepts and visuals today’s culture finds abhorrent and inappropriate,” they wrote in a formal challenge.
It’s one of seven book objections the two have filed with the district since the state issued new rules this year for reviewing classroom and school library collections. As the number of book challenges rises across Florida, those rules have vexed school officials, who have struggled with vague language and the direction to “err on the side of caution.”
If Graham and Hawley had their way, districts would err in a different direction. They submitted their complaints not to get books banned, but to keep them on the shelves. They aim to make the point that catering to parent demands can get out of hand without guardrails in place.
“We wanted to highlight the slippery slope of the ambiguous language that is coming out of Tallahassee,” said Graham, 49, a former English teacher at Pinellas Park High.
He and Hawley said Pinellas’ recent decision to ban Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” from high schools after a parent complaint sparked their attention.
They wanted to understand how the book could be removed for a passage containing sex and violence while the same topics are accepted and seemingly protected in books such as the Bible.
The two challenged the Bible and three Bible-related titles that appear on school shelves. They said they’d rather see all of the items left in place, with parents given choices for their children, than having options diminished.
“We are in no way against the books that we chose to object to,” said Hawley, 44, a father of two who taught language arts at Largo Middle School in the early 2000s. “We’re going through this process to protect the Bible and to protect other books in the same vein.”
To do so, they took the challenge mechanism to what they acknowledged is almost an absurd level.
Take their complaint about “Danny and the Dinosaur.”
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They suggest the page saying Danny saw Indians and Eskimos uses vulgar and racist terms that once might have been accepted but now are outdated and inappropriate. The following page that shows Danny in a weapons room “is repulsive, especially in light of the emotional trauma such a careless depiction can have in young minds with regard to the prevalence of school shootings,” they wrote.
They pointed out on another page that all the men wear pants and women wear dresses. State law does not permit the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation, Hawley noted, so it would seem such teaching of identity would be illegal.
The men also filed a complaint about the 1997 picture book “Four Famished Foxes and Fosdyke,” an alliterative story using the letter F in many words to tell about foxes trying to find their dinner. It’s on the state standards recommended list, too.
The opening page encourages readers to find as many words starting with F as possible.
“The book seems rooted in toying with the concept of ‘the F-word,’” they wrote. “Any insinuation towards vulgarity is not appropriate for children.”
About 14 pages in, the foxes head to a farm for food, and are confronted by geese, chickens and ducks who hurl eggs at them to chase them off. The take from the challenge: “The parent-characters are literally throwing their aborted embryos at other characters, who then … are depicted literally dripping with the aborted embryos of the children. It is disgusting and ungodly.”
The point, Graham said, is to illustrate that a shift in perspective can provide quite a different view of the same book. One person might love it while another loathes it.
“If these books can be realistically and intelligently challenged — and these are the so-called approved books — then anything can,” he said.
Graham called on district officials to set clear, consistent direction for considering challenges rather than being reactionary to each. That way, Hawley said, schools don’t land in the position of having little available for children to read.
He suggested a middle ground of having schools set aside books for parent approval rather than banning them completely.
“I would like (my kids) to be able to check books out at the library, at least with my permission, and not have to have a whole set of books at home,” Hawley said.
Two groups that have been involved in past book challenges took a dim view of Graham and Hawley’s strategy.
Raegan Miller, a Pinellas parent who works with Florida Freedom to Read, laughed aloud at some of the objections they raised. But she also worried that schools could devolve into complaint after complaint if everyone took a similar approach.
“We don’t advocate for censorship,” Miller said. “I understand what they are doing. But I want the district’s resources to go elsewhere.”
Debbie Hunt, education coordinator for Citizens Defending Freedom in Hillsborough County, said she does not support making a mockery of the process. Her group helped get “This Book Is Gay” removed from a Hillsborough middle school.
Taking steps to remove books that violate state law shouldn’t be necessary, Hunt said, but that’s happening frequently. More general challenges to uphold community values are also acceptable, she added.
She paused to consider the challenge to the Bible and related books, which Graham and Hawley referred to as the “ideology of an ancient cult.”
“There is a war between good and evil going on,” Hunt said. “The harder we push against the evil, the harder they’re pushing back.”
Jennifer Pippin, a Moms for Liberty leader in Indian River County, has complained about several books in her district. She also helped write the library book review training for the Florida Department of Education.
She said she had few problems with the effort by the two Pinellas men.
The law says any parent or county resident can challenge any book, Pippin said. “It does not mean that it has to be permanently removed. But it does have to be reviewed.”
Some people might object sarcastically, she said, or to gain attention. That probably will die down as schools cycle through their book purchasing, she added.
“There was no accountability for what was on the shelves. Now there is,” Pippin said. “Per the law, that is their right.”
Graham said he agrees with the Moms for Liberty argument that parents have rights in schools. That’s nothing new, he added.
The key, he said, is to find a way to apply safeguards fairly and intelligently.
“I would just love if our action could cause those people in the district who are making decisions to be a little less reactive,” he said. “I would rather have it be better safe than sorry by including stuff.”
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