When it comes to parental rights, some Florida families say their voices aren't being heard
At Fogartyville Community Center in downtown Sarasota, stacks of brand-new books, which are free for the taking, are piled high across several long tables.
On a corner wall, a string of tiny white lights spells out the word, "read," and about 100 people fill the hall and its sun-drenched courtyard outside.
Organizers call this banned book fair and read-in, a family-friendly celebration of literacy and educational freedom.
While the recent expansion of Florida's Parental Rights in Education law makes it easier to challenge a book and initiate its removal from a public-school library, parents here say they want their kids to have access to books that are inclusive of history, race and gender.
Each book on display at the fair, is one of the nearly 1,500 titles removed from shelves last school year, according to the free speech advocacy group PEN America.
One of the book's selected for the read-in is A Kids Book About Racism, by Black author a Jelani Memory.
Queen Meccasia Zabriskie, of the Manasota Anti-Racism Coalition is one of the event's organizers. She says hundreds of banned titles are about 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 called into question and silenced and we're not ok with that," she said.
Awareness being raised across Florida
The event mirrors other initiatives across the state which aim to highlight the growing concern some parents and others have about book removals in public schools.
In Orlando, two moms founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project which, among other things, track school board actions on books across the state’s school districts.
At American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg, readers can drop by the lobby to pick up a banned book. And in Flagler County, two teachers have created a podcast dedicated to banned books.
Among the more than 500 book challenges recorded in Florida in the 2022-2023 school year are Little Rock Nine, which tells the story of nine black students who were denied entrance into the racially segregated high school in Little Rock, Arkansas and Tango Makes Three, a picture book based on a true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who raised a chick together.
Censors say kids aren’t ready for these types of discussions.
But Monet Sexauer, a mother of two kids, aged 14 and 4, says parents should decide what is appropriate for their families.
"Somebody is telling me in my mind that my kids can't have an education because they're not being given a full picture of history,” she said. “I see no reason to ban books that are just stories of people’s lives. It's just so bizarre and shocking that I can't even really get my head around it."
In March, Governor Ron DeSantis defended the removal of books from schools, calling news stories about the practice a hoax and claiming woke activists were attempting to use schools for indoctrination.
Natascha Moreno, a parent of two young children, says she thinks there's more to the governor's remarks.
"It feels like, 'let me do whatever is most shocking to create my base in order to further my political career,” she said. "As a parent, I'm pretty disgusted."
Moreno says that at just 5 years old, her daughter is already zealous about reading and often asks her parents questions about what she’s read.
“And we want to give her truthful answers,” Moreno said. “And we don’t want our kids to be stigmatized for asking those questions in school.”
What is defined as pornography?
With the expanded Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call "Don’t Say Gay," Florida school districts are required to add book challenge forms to their websites for easy accessibility.
When an objection is made based on possible pornographic content or material that describes sexual conduct, it must be removed from schools within five days. It has to remain unavailable until a review is completed.
But according to PEN America, many challenged books do not actually meet the 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 removals.
Parent Monet Sexauer, a native Floridian, says she worries that as censorship grows, cultural divides will deepen.
"I feel that 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. “It makes me not want to live in a place that is turning that way and yet at the same time I feel very loyal to Florida, like I want to stay here and fight against this."
“History repeats itself," adds her friend Natascha Moreno. “If we do not allow our children to be exposed to history and 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 in Florida's panhandle over its removal of school books.
In Sarasota, parents and kids left the banned book fair carrying armfuls of free books. By the end of the evening, organizers say they gave away about 1,000 books.
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