The Duval County school district last year ordered 176 books from the Essential Voices collection, a diverse range of curated books representing varied cultural and gender identities and designed to make middle schoolers feel represented.
When the collection arrived, instead of putting the books on classroom-library shelves, the Florida district tabled the titles for review—the status in which they’ve remained for almost a year—without any public update or explanation about the process. Advocates calling for making the books accessible are unclear if or when the district will make a decision.
Meanwhile, the collection remains unavailable to the students it was meant to represent.
“What we saw in Duval is an example of this trend around wholesale removal of books that no one has specifically challenged or no one has objected to,” said Kacey Meehan, the Freedom to Read program director for PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization that tracks and opposes book bans.
The district claims the removal of these books isn’t a book ban and that the review process has been stalled because of staffing issues, said Sonya Duke-Bolden, a spokeswoman for the district, in an email.
But PEN America and some authors of those books say the Duval County case marks a turning point in book banning, which has become rampant in districts across the country since last year. The district’s decision to warehouse the 176 books for review for nearly a year wasn’t prompted by a parent’s or employee’s complaint or by an issue raised about a specific book. It was a preemptive withholding of dozens of books about LGBTQ people, people of color, and other topics meant to promote inclusion, for reasons the district has not explained to advocates’ satisfaction.
“In the last academic year, we did see more specific titles being challenged, based on specific objections,” Meehan said. “Now, we just see these longer lists of books that have been challenged and pulled in a way that kind of takes it to another level than an individual parent challenging an individual book.”
The books pulled for review don’t include commonly banned titles
Nationwide, the five most commonly banned books in 2022 all dealt with LGBTQ topics or characters. They included titles such as Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, which was removed from 41 districts, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, banned in 29 districts, and Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, which 24 districts have removed or restricted.
But none of these books is on Duval County’s list, and neither are they on the list of the more than 200 books removed for review in Wentzville, Mo., recently.
Instead, Duval’s tabled collection includes books about Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, and Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousaufzai, an activist for girls’ education, in addition to books about LGBTQ characters and those with racial- or ethnic-minority characters.
Ami Polonsky, the author of Gracefully Grayson, which is a transgender coming-of-age story for middle schoolers still under review in Duval County, traveled from the Chicago area to speak at a school board meeting in Duval County this week, urging the district to put the books on classroom library shelves.
Polonsky, who teaches English to middle schoolers in addition to writing books, said she has read many of the books in the Essential Voices collection, which is sold by Perfection Books, and has found them all to be appropriate for her students.
“There’s absolutely nothing in any of these books objectionable from an age-appropriateness standpoint,” she said. “You can’t teach reading without presenting children with a wide range of interesting, compelling literature that both reflects their lives and then gives them windows into other people’s lives. So it’s hard for me to understand exactly how they’re thinking.”
The district hasn’t cited a reason for review in almost a year
Since the books were considered to be under review starting in January, the district has offered a limited explanation about what prompted the action.
The district said that the list of titles included many substitute titles “that must be reviewed to ensure the material is grade-level-appropriate,” according to a statement the Duval County district released in September, and then re-sent this week in response to Education Week’s request for updates on the review process.
“Unfortunately, due to staffing shortages, the review process will take longer than anticipated,” Duke-Bolden said.
The district’s website indicates that books are approved at the school level, by “certified school media specialists,” according to Duke-Bolden’s email. In cases where there are no certified media specialists, she said, the district’s office of instructional materials and media services would be responsible for keeping track of materials.
Duke-Bolden said that the district’s decision to review the books happened after “new legislation” was introduced in the state but did not clarify which legislation or if and how it may have influenced the decision.
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, as dubbed by its opponents, could be an example of legislation that makes putting books in libraries about LGBTQ characters more fraught for districts. Passed in March, the law bans discussion of sexual and gender identity for elementary students, and mandates that such discussions be “age appropriate” for older students. The state department of education, the entity that decides what age appropriate is, has not released clarifying guidelines.
Laws similar to Florida’s have caused administrators and teachers across the country to self-censor in fear of being in violation of state law.