Florida school district urged to stop book scrutiny. Groups fear censorship.

Pinellas County officials say they have no plan to call off review of 87 titles
A panel of librarians from the Pinellas County school district is scheduled to review 87 books in early July.
A panel of librarians from the Pinellas County school district is scheduled to review 87 books in early July. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published June 30|Updated July 3

The authors of dozens of books facing scrutiny by a team of Pinellas County school librarians urged the school district Friday to call off the effort, which begins in early July.

Joined by three prominent anti-censorship organizations — PEN America, We Need Diverse Books and Florida Freedom to Read Project — the authors raised concerns that most of the 87 titles to be reviewed include underrepresented characters or themes.

“We understand the tremendous pressure and intense scrutiny that has been placed on school districts across the country. But it is the responsibility of the district to protect the rights of all students, not just a few,” they wrote in a letter to Superintendent Kevin Hendrick and school board members.

Florida has become a focal point nationally in recent months over its new laws restricting content and inviting greater public participation in book selection. The state has urged school districts to “err on the side of caution” when deciding which titles can be made available to students.

But the letter said, “Erring on the side of caution should never mean censoring the voices of marginalized creators and promoting a discriminatory effect on what books are made available to the community.”

The group suggested the district instead review the guidance and procedures that led it to second-guess the books. Many of them have received state recognition through the Sunshine State Young Readers Award program and are recommended for the annual Battle of the Books competition.

“I do think it’s a little more frightening than some of us want to admit,” said Zoraida Córdova, whose book “Valentina Salazar is NOT a Monster Hunter” appears on the district’s review list. “I’m kind of confused as to why the book is being challenged, other than it’s about Ecuadorian kids.”

Córdova said she found it amusing that school officials feel the need to read books for their students, particularly materials that are not required. She suggested that routinely assigned authors such as William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe contain more violence and questionable content than children’s books “that are about fantasy, friendship and family.”

“Literature is a way for us to experience the world in a safe space,” she said.

Asked for his response to the letter, Hendrick said he did not anticipate canceling the Library Media Review Team meeting, which is scheduled for July 10-11.

Pinellas Superintendent Kevin Hendrick
Pinellas Superintendent Kevin Hendrick [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“We’re reading the books before we put them in the library. I’m not going to apologize for that,” he said, noting that the district has conducted similar reviews in the past.

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He stressed that none of the books have been removed, and he expected the primary action would be to ensure they are placed at the proper grade level. The books landed on the list either because they’re part of Sunshine State Readers, which become required for students who participate in the Battle of the Books, or because publishers or media specialists asked for added input, he said.

“We’re past the point in the state of Florida where you can just take any book and put it in the library without reading it,” Hendrick said.

School board member Eileen Long, who has vocally opposed banning of books such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” said it’s equally important to ensure items are placed appropriately as it is to provide diverse materials.

Any review “shouldn’t be to ban,” Long said. “It should be to make sure we are aware of what’s in the books so if it comes up, we know how to handle it.”

Laura Hine, the board’s vice chairperson, said she had no problem with proactively “reviewing and grade-leveling” books for teachers, some of whom have pulled books rather than face challenges. She suggested the district should have asked teachers if they had books other than the 87 to include on the list.

“Whatever we have to do to keep teachers assigning books, I’m for,” Hine said.

Pinellas County parent Raegan Miller is a director for Florida Freedom to Read. She signed the letter to the board.

“We’re asking to trust our media specialists who have selected these books. Why the additional review?” Miller said, contending the district has more important issues to address than reviewing books no one has challenged.

PEN America recently joined Penguin Random House and five authors to sue the Escambia County school district over its ban of several books from its libraries. A group of students and the authors of “And Tango Makes Three” also sued the Lake County school district over the removal of that children’s book.

Miller said she hoped the dispute in Pinellas doesn’t get that far.

“I think our resources belong in our classrooms for our students,” she said.

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