At the Fogartyville Community Center in downtown Sarasota, stacks of new books, which can be taken for free, are stacked on several long tables. On a corner wall, a string of tiny white lights spells out the word “read,” and about 100 people fill the room and its sun-drenched outdoor patio.
Organizers call this forbidden book fair and reading a family celebration of literacy and educational freedom.
While the recent expansion of Florida’s parental rights in education law makes it easier to question a book and initiate its removal from a public school library, parents here said they want their children to have access to books that include history. , race and gender. .
Each book on display at the fair is one of nearly 1,500 titles pulled from shelves last school year, according to free speech advocacy group PEN America. One of the books selected for reading was A Kids Book About Racism, by black author Jelani Memory.
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Queen Meccasia Zabriskie of the Manasota Coalition Against Racism is one of the organizers of the event. She said hundreds of banned titles deal with race and racism, while many others feature gay characters and themes.
“The stories and experiences and the history of LGBTQ-plus communities and communities of color are being questioned and silenced and we don’t agree with that,” she said.
Awareness is being raised throughout Florida
The event mirrors other initiatives in Florida that aim to highlight the growing concern that some parents and others have about the disposal of books in public schools.
In Orlando, two moms founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project which, among other things, tracks school board actions on books in the state’s school districts.
At the American Stage Theater Company in St. Petersburg, readers can stop by the lobby to pick up a banned book. And in Flagler County, two teachers created a podcast dedicated to banned books.
Among the more than 500 book challenges registered in Florida in the 2022-2023 school year are Little Rock Ninewhich tells the story of nine black students who are denied entry to a racially segregated high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and tango makes threea picture book based on a true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who raised a chick together.
The censors say that children are not prepared for this type of discussion.
But Monet Sexauer, a mother of two, ages 14 and 4, said parents need to decide what’s appropriate for their families.
“Someone tells me in my mind that my children cannot have an education because they are not being given the full picture of history,” she said. “I don’t see any reason to ban books that are just stories from people’s lives. It’s so strange and shocking that I can’t even understand it.”
In March, Governor Ron DeSantis defended the removal of books from schools, calling the news about the practice a hoax and claiming that awakening activists were trying to use schools for indoctrination.
Natascha Moreno, a mother of two young children, said she believes there is more to the governor’s comments.
“It feels like, ‘Let me do whatever is most impactful to create my foundation to advance my political career,'” he said. “As a mother, I am quite upset.”
Moreno said that at just 5 years old, her daughter already has an enthusiasm for reading and often asks her parents questions about what she has read.
“And we want to give you truthful answers,” Moreno said. “And we don’t want our kids to be stigmatized for asking those questions at school.”
What is defined as pornography?
With the expansion of the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics call “Don’t Say Gay,” Florida school districts are required to add book challenge forms to their websites for easy access.
When an objection is made based on possible pornographic content or material depicting sexual conduct, you must be withdrawn from the schools within five days. It has to remain unavailable until a review is completed. But according to PEN America, many challenged books don’t actually meet legal and colloquial definitions of “pornography.”
The group reports that Florida ranks second, behind only Texas, as the state with the highest number of book recalls.
Mother Monet Sexauer, a Florida native, says she worries that as censorship grows, cultural divides will deepen.
“I feel like it’s going to change the climate of how people treat each other if they don’t learn about each other’s lives,” she said. At the same time, I feel very loyal to Florida, like I want to stay here and fight this.”
“History repeats itself,” adds her friend Natascha Moreno. “If we don’t allow our children to be exposed to history and the truth, then we are in trouble.”
Last week parents, PEN America and Random House, the nation’s largest book publisher, announced they were suing the Escambia County School District on the Florida panhandle over the removal of school books.
In Sarasota, parents and children walked out of the banned book fair with stacks of free books. At the end of the night, the organizers said they gave away about 1,000 books.
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