TAMPA — Jenny Wear rode her bike past her Little Free Library. Actually, the community’s Little Free Library. She’d spent much of 2023 getting the book box running in Westwood Lakes Park. She checked on it often.
There it stood the morning of Oct. 26: a blue rectangle painted with a rainbow bursting from a book, a motif adapted from the PBS classic “Reading Rainbow.” Wear had added words she tells her children: “You are loved, kind, capable, brave, radiant, strong, beautiful, smart, awesome, unstoppable, enough!!!”
The box brimmed. Wear had gone on a spree at local bookstores, but certain titles she had never seen before; that was thrilling. The box was becoming a self-sustaining organism moving literature in and out.
By lunchtime, though, a neighbor messaged.
“Is the box removed?”
Wear rushed to the park. The library was missing, the post hole filled in. She asked a landscaper. He wasn’t sure what happened, but earlier in the day, he’d seen trucks from Hillsborough County.
We are going to unpack what happened to the book box because what happened to the book box is a microcosm of what has happened to Florida.
This is a state where the government from the top down has signed off on hostility and suspicion. Where skittish neighbors surveil and report, poised to anonymously brawl behind keyboards in off-white developments. Where a single person fed up with rainbows and pronouns can work local governments into a lather. Where people with good intentions are left disillusioned.
And nestled along the northwestern edge of Hillsborough County, in a community with tree-lined streets and committees to approve landscaping, on the floor of Wear’s garage, lies one bit of fallout: a sideways book box reclaimed from the county and 46 titles. A children’s encyclopedia. Thrillers by Lee Child and David Baldacci. A guide for investment bankers.
And: “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. Wear made sure to add that title herself. It was among books banned this year by Pinellas County Schools before outcry helped bring it back. It’s a book I personally distributed to Little Free Libraries in January; gobs of readers said they followed suit, adding banned books to boxes around Tampa Bay as a gesture of public will in public spaces.
Since then, Floridians have witnessed mandates aimed at wiping the mere discussion of LGBTQ+ identities from school. They’ve navigated crackdowns on books led by Moms for Liberty and attempted to parse flimsy laws that enable precisely this kind of chaos. Per Pen America, Florida has assumed the embarrassing crown of leading the nation in book bans.
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Now imagine that one little rainbow book box disappears. Imagine what happens next.
The story of the vanishing library comes together through emails, records, social media posts and interviews.
Wear, 35, started researching how to install a book box for Westwood Lakes Park in March, between her career in marketing and life as a mom to three. She wanted to connect with neighbors over something positive. She wanted a repository for her book-buying habit. And she was well aware that books were under attack in Florida.
She’d seen an article about Little Free Libraries sprouting in Old Seminole Heights thanks to a mini grant. She reached out. The city referred her to a Hillsborough County park planner. He referred her to project manager Samantha Phillips.
Phillips wrote to Wear: Good morning. We love little free libraries!
Phillips was lovely, Wear said. The two labored to land on a location at the Hillsborough County pocket park with no staff. The notes were full of smiley faces. In May, the box went in.
On the Fourth of July, it literally blew up, victim to fireworks pranks that also damaged a slide. Wear sent Phillips photos of the blue box in shards.
Phillips: I am so very sad to hear this!
Wear scouted a quieter slice of the park and sent photos. Her neighbor built a new box.
Phillips: I spoke with our maintenance. This location is good to go!
On a suggestion from her daughter, Wear spent eight hours painting the new box, including swaths of colors used in Pride flags celebrating people of color and transgender people.
“I didn’t have trepidation,” she said. “I feel so strongly that everyone needs to feel represented.”
Neighbors celebrated with a party. Cookies, pumpkin buckets, colorful posters. Books. Lots of books. Wear crouched and read to a circle of children. She posed in cat ears, beaming next to her project.
The library would be gone in five days.
Subject: Offensive material
Message: I am a resident of the Westwood Lakes community. We have a county park at our entrance and a free library was recently put up. Although I agree with the concept it is the content that is offensive. The box is painted in the colors of the LGBTQ community and the books inside are about gender, sexuality, and are geared toward children. This is free and front row in a public county park. I have no issue with one’s rights to express themselves but I’m (sic) an appropriate area. This is a quiet residential family neighborhood that we want to remain neutral and leave these teachings to individual parents.
The complaint came to Hillsborough County on Oct. 23, along with a photo Wear herself had posted on social media. It features her hand holding two books: “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” an essay collection by David Sedaris, and “The Pronoun Book” by Chris Ayala-Kronos, a children’s book that explains inclusive pronouns.
On Oct. 25, parks, planning and athletics manager Gregory Brown wrote to another manager:
Please have this removed and the hole filled in. Hold the box at the North unit for 3 months to see if someone contacts us. Or see if it is registered online and contact to pick up. We do not support the little free library at unmanned parks at this point.
With no idea what had happened, Wear and friends started calling and emailing the county, hearing dominoes of rumors and explanations: It was the content. No, not the content, but whether Wear had permission to install the box. Not just the permission, but a staffing issue. It was safety.
She took to Facebook, urging neighbors to email parks and recreation director Rick Valdez. According to records, they did by the dozen. Her neighbor, lawyer Jack Baldini, knew the complaint would be public record. Unbeknownst to Wear, he filed a request and gave her the complaint.
“There are a lot more dangerous things in the park than a box of books,” Baldini told me. “If you want to withdraw the permission, OK, but own it. Give the reason.”
I asked for an interview with Phillips. She declined through a spokesperson, who offered an interview with recreation services manager Adrienne Rouse.
I asked Rouse, how did this happen?
In approving the box, Rouse said, Phillips was trying to be helpful but overstepped. The county hasn’t typically allowed Little Free Libraries in unstaffed parks since the pandemic. People leave things inside. Knives. Apples. Paint. At a staffed park, she said, an employee can keep tabs — but wouldn’t vet books.
Confusingly, there’s at least one other unstaffed book box still standing not too far away at Country Run Park. That one is different, Rouse said, because its creator followed procedure.
Hadn’t Jenny Wear tried to follow procedure?
It turns out the procedure isn’t written down anywhere, but Rouse said it involves contacting the department’s general request line and the message filtering up to the right people. Rouse said the department will be meeting to reexamine this.
Did this ordeal have anything to do with the rainbow or the books inside?
“I’m glad that you asked that,” Rouse said. “It didn’t have any effect at all on the removal. It was more the fact that that citizen complaint drew attention to the fact that the box was there.”
She went on: “We’re not taking a position on anyone’s sexual choices or gender choices or religious choices or financial choices. Parks is all about inclusivity and neutral space and people feeling welcome.”
I asked if she understood how this looks. That for the people involved, it appears the county cowered to one complaint amid a hot-button political year. That the county is blaming the mess on Wear and Phillips. That what’s going on is censorship, punting and excuses to save face.
“That hurts my heart,” she said. “I can definitely see their perspective. I can see how there’s a lot of passion behind the installation of this … I can see how this took a wrong turn quickly.”
The county has invited Wear to put her box — rainbow, books and all — at the Westchase Park and Recreation Center, about a 10-minute drive from Wear’s neighborhood park. She can work with her homeowner’s association to install a box in her community.
Wear plans to do both after taking a moment to regroup. She’s tired and hurt. But more than one person privately thanked her for painting the box, she said. Inside their quiet suburb, it was their first time feeling noticed.
Wear provided every bit of paper trail she had, minus one thing.
The name of the neighbor who complained.
“Not because I don’t think you can find it anyway,” she said.
She does not know him, but she knows who he is. So do I, via public records. I asked her one last time. Why did she want to leave him out of it?
She thought hard. Anger and hate for him had started ramping up in the comments of her posts. That was not what she wanted. Maybe that kind of hasty reaction got us humans into these bitter situations in the first place. Not trying to slow down, to understand, to wait before speaking, typing, reacting.
She started to compose a diplomatic quote; I asked her to just be real. After nearly a year of following Florida’s intellectual erosion, circling the feedback loop of knee-jerk decisions and equivocation, enduring bizarre bullhorns of regressive frenzy legitimized via opaque policies, I admittedly felt tired, too. Eager to extract any meaning from this mess to signal that civility, and maybe grace, still stood a chance.
Wear took a breath.
“I do care about my neighbors, even if they ruined something that was a dream of mine,” she said. “I really mean it. I really do mean it.”
“You can print that.”
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