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Lit Hit List: The Controversial And Banned Books Of Duval County

Michael Cavendish

Puss ‘N Boots, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? and Santa Claus Mystery.

These are just a few of the books challenged in Duval County Public Schools over the years due their questionable content.

Among a list of nearly 300 works, you can also find Huckleberry Finn, the entire Harry Potter collection, and a personal favorite of mine, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

The coming of age classic introduces young readers to pornography, a parent complained back in 2003.

“It is fascinating to go down the list, isn’t it?” said Bryant Frazier, Duval supervisor of instructional material and library media, after rattling off a few of the books on the very long list.

Some Swell Pup,” he adds. The children’s book was once contested back in 1983 for the pup’s proclivity for urination and defecation.

The American Library Association estimates that about 400 to 500 works are challenged around the country each year. But banning books is not a new idea. Attempts to remove controversial literature are as old as the written language, itself.

However, a few recent removals in nearby Pasco and Escambia counties have brought the issue back in focus in Florida.

Frazier has been overseeing the process that lands books on the district’s "re-evaluation" list for 12 years now. It begins with a complaint from a parent, teacher or otherwise concerned citizen.
“A parent fills out a written form that we have, a request for a reevaluation and then submits it to the school and then to the academic services department, where it comes to me,” he said.

From there, a committee of about four or five media and content area specialists convenes, researches and discusses the material until they reach a consensus. Most complaints are met with relatively mild restrictions like requiring parental permission or grade-level designations.

Some of those restrictions are eventually appealed by other parents or teachers and reversed. For example, Catcher In The Rye was once only available through parental permission in Duval. Now, it is available without restriction.

“One can get a good sense or a good measure of the hot button cultural or political topics of the day by looking at the books that parents and administrators target,” said Clay Calvert, director of the First Amendment Project at the University of Florida.

What may be controversial today, could be a classic by tomorrow, Calvert says.

“A lot of literature today was initially prosecuted for being obscene. Books were seized,” he said. “Lady Chatterley's Lover, for instance, was one of those, which many people would consider to be a classic now.”

The question is whether no child should have the option to read this book because some parents don't think it's appropriate. - Joan Bertin, National Coalition Against Censorship

In Duval, as in much of the country, Catcher in the Rye — once objectionable for its language and sexual themes — is now a veritable staple of high school reading lists.

But there are still 10 works you won’t find in Duval School libraries, including 1970’s counter-culture novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which deals with topics of homosexuality and female birth control. Also, at the top of the list is Angels in America, which recently made its theatrical debut in Jacksonville for the first time in March. The award-winning play explores homosexual love at the height of the American AIDS crisis.

“Angels is about a particular historical period that is really a very interesting and so it’s educational on many levels,” said Joan Bertin, director of New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship.  

Bertin’s agency deals with about one to two book censorship complaints a week. Of late, her group has challenged the removal of works in Escambia and Pasco County.

The most recent came earlier this month when Pasco County School District removed the popular young adult novel Paper Towns from a summer reading list, after a parent raised concerns about the book’s sexual content.

“Nobody’s saying that the parents in this case or in other cases can’t guide their child’s reading choice,” Bertin said. “The question is whether no child should have the option to read this book because some parents don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Calvert, of UF, who has written on the topic of literary censorship, said all public schools have to make hard choices about the books they stock their shelves with because of limited funding. But the danger comes when those choices are based on a single viewpoint, he said.

“The real danger, in my view, comes in when books are not selected due to their viewpoint or position on certain topics,” Calvert said.

In Duval, a parent who does not approve of a particular book always has the option of choosing an alternative assignment, said Duval Schools’ media supervisor Bryant Davis.

Restrictions on books can also be challenged and lifted through a written request, Davis said.

"If a teacher wanted to use it in their curriculum for some reason...they might ask that it be revisited," he said. "A parent could ask that it be revisited."

But over the years, Frazier said he's seeing the requests for book removals come in with less frequency.     

“I’ve seen a noticeable drop in requests for re-evaluations,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve had any requests this year.”

Books Removed from Duval County Public Schools:

  1. Angels in America  - Tony Kushner
  2. Beford Intro to Angels in America - Lee A. Jacobus
  3. Don't Call Me Little Bunny - Gregoire Solotareff
  4. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - Tom Robbins
  5. Jogging - Sandra Hochman
  6. Revolting Rhymes - Roald Dahl
  7. Schmucks - Seymour Blicker
  8. Skindeep - Toeckey Jones
  9. There's a Pig In Every Crowd - Henry Mead
  10. Thrasher Magazine - Edward H. Riggins
  11. Types of Drama, Plays & Contexts - Burto, Ferris & Rabkin*

(*Textbook allowed but "Angels in America" play removed)
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.