Broward high schools remove book reported by parents’ group and labeled by DeSantis administration as pornographic

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis, Anthony Man and Leslie Postal | February 15, 2023

Broward school libraries will remove a sexually explicit teen graphic novel that Gov. Ron DeSantis administration categorized as “pornography.”

The book “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human” was in the libraries of three schools, Fort Lauderdale High, Coral Glades High in Coral Springs and Nova High in Davie. It has now been removed.

“Once we received a complaint, we initiated our review process of the material. During the review, the book will be removed from our schools,” Broward school district spokesman John Sullivan said.

The complaint came from the Broward chapter of the socially conservative group Moms for Liberty, and its affiliate Moms for Libraries. “Good. It is pornography,” Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ press secretary, tweeted Wednesday evening in response to the Broward School District’s removal of the book.

The book also was found in Orange and Seminole counties, Griffin said earlier Wednesday via email. The books the governor’s staff said were in Orange and Seminole county public schools have already been removed, officials said.

“Pornography in the classroom is a real and ongoing issue,” Griffin tweeted Tuesday. “From the book’s own description: ‘Covering relationships, friendships, gender, sexuality, anatomy, body image, safe sex, sexting, jealousy, rejection, sex education … the first in graphic novel form.’”

“Let’s Talk About It” isn’t recommended for young children, according to publisher Penguin Random House’s website, which said it is appropriate for grades nine and higher. The graphic novel form apparently is an attempt to engage high-school-aged readers.

The book poses these questions, and provides answers, according to the publisher: “Is what I’m feeling normal? Is what my body is doing normal? Am I normal? How do I know what are the right choices to make? How do I know how to behave? How do I fix it when I make a mistake?” Penguin Random House said.

The publisher’s full description, which Griffin quoted, provides additional context: “How do you find the answers to all the questions you have about yourself, about your identity, and about your body? Let’s Talk About It provides a comprehensive, thoughtful, well-researched graphic novel guide to everything you need to know. Covering relationships, friendships, gender, sexuality, anatomy, body image, safe sex, sexting, jealousy, rejection, sex education, and more, Let’s Talk About It is the go-to handbook for every teen, and the first in graphic novel form.”

Penguin Random House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

A review in School Library Journal, which describes itself as “the premiere publication for librarians and information specialists who work with children and teens,” praised the book.

“Don’t be afraid. Yes, there are drawings of naked bodies in this book (mostly in the “Body Image” section), and, yes, readers will learn about some of the ways the human body is wired for pleasure. And the detailed drawings of genitals are not solely in service of explaining how babies are made. But every panel of this book, every anatomical drawing, every conversation over tea or in a tent, is loaded with crucial information about consent, respect, consideration, and boundaries,” the review said.

The information is conveyed through “a magnificently varied cast of characters” who “receive reassurance, information, and practical advice.”

Broader issue

It’s one of several books DeSantis’ communications director, press secretary and deputy press secretary identified as problematic in a series of tweets Tuesday, saying the frequently challenged books “Gender Queer” and “It’s Perfectly Normal” also were found in other Florida schools.

In his email Wednesday, Griffin said “It’s Perfectly Normal” had been found in Broward schools, but didn’t identify “Let’s Talk About It” as being in Broward schools as Moms for Liberty reported.

“Let’s Talk About It was found in Orange and Seminole counties. Gender Queer was found in Collier and Orange counties. It’s Perfectly Normal was found in Broward and Duval counties. This Book is Gay was found in Marion and Orange counties,” Griffin wrote.

“It’s Perfectly Normal” was pulled last year from Broward schools after complaints from Moms for Liberty. Palm Beach County schools pulled “Gender Queer” after similar complaints there.

The free-speech organization PEN America’s nationwide Index of School Book Bans covering the 12 months from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022, found 41 instances of “Gender Queer” being banned, including in Brevard, Orange, Osceola and Pinellas counties in Florida. “It’s Perfectly Normal” had seven bannings during that time, PEN America reported, including Polk and Walton counties in Florida. “Let’s Talk About It,” wasn’t on the PEN America list.

Previously, Broward’s Moms for Liberty chapter has identified more than 20 books that it wants removed from libraries. Parents, using a student’s ID, can log on to a school district system that allows them to find any book in Broward schools. It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday afternoon if taxpayers without children in the schools could also see what books are available.

Some books have been pulled while others have been restricted to middle or high schools. Corie Pinero, a member of the group, emailed School Board members and district staff Monday evening about “Let’s Talk About,” including photos of graphic pictures showing sexual acts.

“I wanted to bring this additional book (attached) to your attention, it is currently in 3 of our high schools in Broward County,” she wrote. “This book needs to be removed by the end of this week. It is pornographic and very sexually explicit. It does not belong in our schools. As you can see there is no question that it violates Florida law.”

Pinero said she will be “checking again later this week to make sure that it has been removed from all of our schools in Broward County.”

A state rule adopted by the state board last month urges librarians to “err on the side of caution” when selecting books for their campuses. The rule stems from a new 2022 state law pushed by Republican leaders. Critics say it will have a “chilling effect” on educators and will allow those with conservative views to dictate what books all Florida students can select at their schools.

But supporters say the new law, rule and training provide much-needed scrutiny of books in media centers and classrooms and more ways for parents to learn what is on school shelves.

Removing books

The book “Let’s Talk About It” was at one Seminole County high school — and was never checked out by a student, said Seminole County Public Schools spokesperson Katherine Crnkovich, in an email. The book, praised by the School Library Journal among others, was removed after someone filed a complaint about it in October, she said.

In Orange County, Superintendent Maria Vazquez said in January that “Let’s Talk About It” and “This Book is Gay” were removed for fear they did not comply with new state laws related to libraries. The book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” raised the same worries, but district staff had already removed it in 2021.

Only two to four copies of those three books were available to students in just a few of the 22 Orange County Public Schools’ high schools, according to district staff and a review of online library catalogs.

Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, formed to push back against book banning, said Tuesday’s tweets seem part of an effort to create a statewide “banned books list.” One shouldn’t claim books are pornographic simply because they contain descriptions or pictures of sexual acts, she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that sexual content does not automatically equate to obscenity as whether the material has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” must also be considered. Ferrell noted the state’s own training material for school librarians makes the same point.

All the books have value and should be available at libraries, she added. If parents don’t want their children to access them, they can say so but neither they nor “big government” should dictate what other parents’ children read, she said.

“Of course, we as parents do not want pornography in our schools,” said Ferrell, a mother of two elementary school students in Orange County Public Schools.

‘Let’s Talk’

Opinions vary on whether the book “Let’s Talk About It” is appropriate for high school students. Kirkus Reviews, a widely cited website and magazine, gave the book a positive review.

The book starts with discussions of what sex is, varying types of sexual expression and the meaning of consent, the Kirkus review said, before going on to a chapter that “nonjudgmentally explores various kinds of relationships, including monogamous, polyamorous, open, and companionate. Subsequent chapters discuss gender and sexuality (with joyful and varied illustrations), body image (featuring loving representations of many body types), anatomy (including outstanding drawings that are inclusive of trans and intersex people), masturbation (with how-to ideas presented), and thorough coverage of birth control and STI prevention. The book is rounded out with chapters on what to think about before having sex; orgasms; ground rules for sexting; kinks, fantasies, and porn; jealousy and rejection (including guidance on recognizing abusive patterns); potential impacts on friendship; and more.”

The book cover of “Let’s Talk About It, The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human” by authors Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. It has been removed from three Broward high school libraries pending a further review after a complaint from the conservative organization Moms for Liberty and its affiliate Moms for Libraries. (Penguin Random House/Courtesy)

Moms for Liberties/Moms for Libraries included two attachments to its Monday email to the school district in which it demanded the book’s removal.

One attachment has three pages from the book in which cartoon characters are shown having sexual intercourse, female masturbation is depicted and two people are performing in a pornography video. “Watching porn uncritically can leave you with unrealistic expectations about what to do in the bedroom, so do yourself a favor and consume it with a hefty pinch of salt,” the text says.

The Moms for organizations also included a lengthy report from Book Look, which the liberal organization Media Matters for America reported is “crowdsourcing parents’ book reviews and using them as justification for literature bans in public schools.”

Book Look’s “Summary of Concerns” reports, “This book contains obscene, sexual illustrations and commentary; obscene sexual nudity; profanity; and alternate gender ideologies.”

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