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Florida's book challenges were a prelude to national issue ahead of 2024 election

Hundreds of books are now being challenged in states across the country as policies and concerns similar to those of Florida conservatives proliferate.
Banned books
Posted at 6:28 AM, May 29, 2024

They say that education is at the heart of a strong democracy, but ahead of 2024’s presidential election, how and what students are taught in public schools has become a major political issue.

Few places is that more apparent than in Florida. Here, book challenges have led to the restriction of hundreds of titles from school district libraries and made even more headlines over the last two years.

You’ve probably seen school board meetings like these that made national headlines: Adults trying to remove books from school libraries and classrooms, often pushing long lists and demanding action. The fight has come mainly from conservative political groups, like Moms for Liberty. Their members often object to themes they find violent, lewd or pornographic, while other parents and educators push back.

A person reads Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir "Gender Queer."

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Florida has become the epicenter of the book ban battle in the U.S. Last school year alone, the state says more than 1,200 objections resulted in nearly 400 book removals. According to First Amendment nonprofit PEN America, Florida leads the nation with over 40% of all book bans last year occurring in the Sunshine State’s K-12 classrooms.

Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-controlled legislature helped enable the book challenges. They crafted laws (HB 1557 / HB 1069) restricting public school “instruction” on gender and sexuality in grades K to 3, later expanding it through high school, with some exceptions.

Another law made it easier for parents or anyone else to challenge a book. Supporters have argued that too much inappropriate material is reaching young minds.

“That’s pornographic — why do we have that in a media center with 10-year-old students?” DeSantis said at a press conference in March of 2023. “It’s just wrong. A lot of parents now have been empowered to make sure these are appropriate environments.”

DeSantis has repeatedly cited questionable content found in grades as early as elementary. As justification, his communications team published this video with some of the most graphic examples. Many of the books were focused on LGBTQ+ inclusivity — but the governor labeled them an attempt at indoctrination over education.

“Parents look at that and they feel like they’re sending their kids to a place that is waging war against their own basic values,” said DeSantis. “We can’t have that in the state of Florida.”

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Those who feel the bans have gone too far said the graphic material is a very small portion of what’s now being questioned. Their focus has shifted to condemning what they see as overzealous censorship.

They point to places like Escambia County, which has had perhaps the highest number of challenges in the country. More than 200 books are currently being reviewed, including modern classics like "The Watchmen," "American Gods" and "The Handmaid’s Tale."

“They're fed up and tired of the culture wars,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani.

Eskamani, a Democratic state lawmaker in Florida, has been one of the most vocal critics of the book challenges. She’s voiced worry that schools and education are getting weakened by what she sees as the injection of a conservative ideology. She thinks voters are sick of it.

“I’m very hopeful that this year we'll see the demise of Moms for Liberty,” said Eskamani. “We'll see election results that speak to what we see in other states already, that we can go back to public education being an apolitical and foundational purpose for all of us.”

The issue has become a national one ahead of the 2024 election. Hundreds of books are now being challenged in states across the country as policies and concerns similar to those of Florida conservatives proliferate.

The American Library Association sounded the alarm with a recent report that showed 2023 brought the most book title challenges in its nearly 150-year history, with a 65% increase over 2022.

The ALA also documented its top 10 most challenged books of last year, most containing LGBTQ+ content. Topping the list, "Gender Queer: A Memoir." Its author, Maia Kobabe, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post, writing, “Schools are banning my book. But queer kids need queer stories.”

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Back in Florida, groups like the Florida Freedom to Read Project have sprung up to track the bans. The nonprofit regularly updates lists of books under threat. That’s as bookstores join the effort to push back. Some feature — or even specialize in — titles taken off Florida school shelves.

Rohi’s Readery in West Palm Beach is among them.

"We want to use these books as tools of empowerment, but instead, people are seeing them as a threat, which is not the case," said Pranati Kumar, who operates Rohi’s. "It's even sad that they're being called banned books because their intention, of these authors and illustrators, is to create liberation. It's to create opportunities for open engagement and conversation and learning of stories of others."

Critics of the bans have even scored what they consider a recent win. Gov. DeSantis signed a bill last month scaling back the scope of Florida’s book bans. The legislation limits challenges that non-parents can submit to one a month. DeSantis, however, blamed the change on “activists.”

“I think that will help short circuit these frivolous challenges because it's being done to create a narrative that somehow, my gosh, all these books are, quote, banned,” said DeSantis. “No book is banned in Florida. The most grotesque, pornographic books that are in schools that have been removed because they're not appropriate, you can go buy it at a bookstore.”

His comments mark the latest chapter in the book ban battle, which continues to rage in Florida and across the nation. But how it will end remains unwritten.

This story was originally published by Forrest Saunders at Scripps News Tampa.