Florida leads the nation in school book bans. That should terrify us.
A new PEN America report comes on the heels of more Pinellas County book bans.
Education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. speaks as Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on during an event put on by the governor’s office at State Attorney's Office 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
Education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. speaks as Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on during an event put on by the governor’s office at State Attorney's Office 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sept. 22|Updated Oct. 25

Class, it’s time to review our flashcards. Yes, you’re tired and have low blood sugar. We all do. In this semester of life, the blanket of information hangs heavy, and we just want to crawl back under the covers.

But grab a granola bar. Have some sour gummy worms. Wake up.

Florida is leading the country in public school book bans, per a new report released Thursday by free speech nonprofit PEN America. More than 40% of all book bans happened here, with Florida’s tactical tentacles slithering beyond its borders as a blueprint for national chaos.

Public school book bans across the U.S. increased by a third this school year compared to the one before, according to the report. Florida surpassed Texas this year — Texas! — by a huge margin. PEN America counted 1,406 cases of book banning in Florida and 625 in Texas. Also on the list: 333 in Missouri, 281 in Utah and 186 in Pennsylvania.

Almost half of the banned titles dealt with violence, abuse or sexual assault. A third included characters of color and racial themes. Another third represented LGBTQ+ identities. Finally, 6% had a transgender character.

Right on time, Pinellas County Schools pulled five more titles the past week, restricting and reclassifying a bunch of others. Now, you wonder, what library horror scenes unfolded to cause the latest bluster? There were no formal complaints; that procedure has gone out of style with skinny jeans. If school districts do receive formal objections anymore, they’re most likely being bug-bombed: The Tampa Bay Times traced nearly 600 Florida complaints back to the same two people.

Repetition is key to retention, so let’s do the drill. On to the bullet points!

• How is this happening? Ultra-conservative activists with a penchant for THEE-A-TRAY are putting on Razzie-worthy performances at school boards around Florida, reading graphic passages. These speakers have literally been instructed to stand up and say “potty” words. It’s worth noting the groups do excavate plenty of explicit texts, but these passages are almost always delivered without framing for context, intent, literary merit or faith in educators to screen for age and ability. When the words stand alone, they have outsized power to unfairly shock, disgust and paint schools as hotbeds of moral corruption.

• Who’s behind the push? More than 80% of districts that have banned a book this year have a nearby branch of at least one group leading the censorship charge, per the report. Those include Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom and Parents’ Rights in Education, each of which vow to protect children and wholeheartedly believe increasing control over public schools is the way ... toward ... freedom?

• Why is this extra scary? The calls are coming from inside the house. The five new banned books in Pinellas, which range from a novel about victims of sex trafficking to the story of a teen serial killer to a dark dragon fairy tale, come from a list that a school board member introduced for review. Stephanie Meyer, a friend of Moms for Liberty, claimed in a July meeting that the books might violate state laws around content. State laws, of course, are paving the way for confusion and panic, clearly stating: “asdfghjkl asdfghjkl asdfghjkl.”

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• What is a “ban?” The American Library Association defines a “ban” as the removal of a book based on the objection of a person or group. Gov. Ron DeSantis and his cronies have called book banning a “hoax,” going so far as to print podium signs that say, well, “exposing the book ban hoax.” Podium sign makers are having a boom year. The bad faith argument generally goes that if books still are available in stores, they aren’t “banned” unless a dystopian fireman is bursting into your home. Moms for Liberty prefers the soft word “curating.”

• Is there anything more promising to say now that those granola bar calories have hit?

The good news is that this coordinated attack on reading has raised awareness, particularly in Florida. In Escambia County, authors, parents and students have filed a federal lawsuit challenging book bans; the school board there wants the case thrown out. In Seminole County, crowd dissent was strong at a recent school board meeting. Moms for Liberty was attempting to trigger a state law that says material must be removed from schools if the board stops someone from reading it aloud. Their plan didn’t work.

One more thing to “chew” on (ugh, sorry). Banned Books Week starts Oct. 1. A coalition of groups created the event in — pause for dramatic nausea — 1982, in response to an uptick in book banning. While it’s depressing to regress into the ‘80s for many reasons, not least of all the hair, the week is worth celebrating more than ever. Oct. 7 is billed as Let Freedom Read Day, and organizers want everyone to pick one galvanizing action.

For instance, it would be a real shame if, say, a bunch of folks got so energized on snack bars and candy that they flooded their school districts, elected officials and newspapers with letters. Or gave money to an advocacy group. Or made a plan to attend a government meeting to push back on bans. Or started a community book drive. Or checked out banned books from libraries to boost their circulation. Or bought banned books and accidentally dropped them in book boxes around town. This would all be a real shame.

That was sarcasm, of course. You know this because you are well-read and well-fed, and you’re refusing to normalize this backslide into insidious thought suppression no matter how many news stories emerge to cast an abiding numbness over your will to engage. Good study session! Let’s meet back here soon.

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