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Oh, Florida

Written by Membership Coordinator Deonna Kelli Sayed

I’ve shared many times in Highway 64, the recently re-named NCWN journal, how books created a bigger world during my rural north Florida childhood.

It pains me to see Florida is now leading the nation in banning books (along with Texas).

In 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature signed into law the Stop W.O.K.E. Act (Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employers), also known as the Individual Freedom Act.  The legislation is supposed to “fight back against woke indoctrination,” from anti-racism education to Critical Race Theory.

This involves removing books that allegedly center “woke” topics from school shelves.

Critics of the legislation say the framing, in practice, censors curriculum around Black history and conversations about LGBTQ+ experiences. The ACLU points out the law potentially violates constitutional rights on freedom of expression and erodes protections aimed at racial equity.

Outside of the legalese, the legislation thrusts books and the act of reading into politically charged territory. 

Teachers in south Florida recently posted videos of empty library and classroom bookshelves after removing titles to comply with new legislation. Governor Ron DeSantis then issued a statement declaring the allegations a misrepresentation of his policies.

PEN America, which closely monitors book-banning efforts, reported that a large number of titles in certain districts were removed from circulation as the law is so ill-defined that even To Kill A Mockingbird could fall under “pornographic material.”

Teachers and librarians who fail to comply might face criminal prosecution.

My cousin Beth teaches in a rural north Florida public school. To her knowledge, that district hasn’t removed any books. “Our librarian would fight it,” she messaged me over Facebook. “She isn’t about book bans.”

This weighs on all educators, especially those like Beth (not her real name, by the way; she asked to remain anonymous.)  She lives in an underserved area with complex (and often overlooked) Black and Indigenous history.  “Books allow students to make a connection with our past, present, and even future. They shape young minds, make them think more critically, allow them to share understanding, and foster empathy. When you ban books, you prevent students from growing emotionally, socially, and intellectually.”

Beth adds that parents have the right to monitor and control what their own children read but “it isn’t fair for them to dictate what they deem appropriate for other children.”

Book-loving Floridians are responding to these developments in creative ways.

WJHG, a regional news station based in Panama City, launched their first-ever viewer book club in January 2023. They meet at a public library once a month to talk about books. The book selections are non-controversial, for sure, but send a message that books matter. Books bring people together, regardless of politics. 

A New Chapter: Books and More (downtown Marianna, FL)

The area’s first independent bookstore opened this year in downtown Marianna. Aptly named  A New Chapter: Books and More, the store is quickly becoming the kind of Third Space that communities like this need—a place for all kinds of people to gather and talk about ideas.  A New Chapter recently started hosting Dungeon and Dragons meet-ups (D&D is still scandalous in some parts) and welcomed a gathering of the Artist Guild of NW Florida. Plus, they sell books, from bestsellers to those penned by local writers.

News stations that hold book clubs, independent bookstores in rural communities . . . these developments may not seem huge, but they resonate beyond Florida.

North Carolina isn’t immune to censorship efforts. Recently a Robeson County parent launched a campaign to ban Nasreen’s Secret School after his daughter read the picture book in class. The book is based on a true story of an Afghan girl trying to get an education in Taliban-controlled territory. 

As book challenges increase around the country, reading folks are building community as quiet pushback—in the literary kind of way.