Countering DeSantis, Broward Democrats launch effort to buy and distribute banned books
South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Anthony Man | February 14, 2023
The Broward Democratic Party has launched an effort to have people buy books about Black and LGBTQ subjects — and donate them to tiny neighborhood libraries in an effort to provide students with books and information that’s being removed from public schools.
It’s an effort to do two things: get books in the hands of students in the face of heightened challenges on what they can access in their schools and to counter policies from Gov. Ron DeSantis involving Black and LGBTQ subjects.
The effort began on Feb. 3. In the first week, 450 books from the Amazon wish list had arrived; 550 had been ordered.
“The response has been overwhelming and heartening,” said Chris Byrnes, outreach and organizing director at the Broward Democratic Party. “You never know what kind of response you’re going to get from something that starts on social media, but it’s just blown up.”
In the coming days, the books will start being placed in Little Free Library boxes throughout the county. Those are the little boxes, usually made of wood and sometimes creatively decorated, at which people can take a book or give one to share.
Angered by DeSantis, and increasing restrictions on books in schools, Robyn Raymond of Weston bought and donated two books.
“Books are near and dear to my heart … a way to learn about the world and learn about other communities and build empathy and compassion.” She said books helped instill those qualities in her two children, now adults.
“I feel so strongly about book bans,” Raymond said. “It’s just the first step. Book bans lead to book burnings.”
Raymond learned about the book drive on social media. After her purchase, “I told a friend of mine, and she bought some books, and she sent it to a friend of hers, and she bought some books.”
The genesis of the idea was a late January news report about the latest request from the Moms for Liberty organization asking the Broward School Board to remove a list of books from schools in the county, Byrnes said.
The Broward Democratic Party responded with an Amazon wish list with a selection of books, mostly about Black and LGBTQ issues and history, including several on the Moms for Liberty list.
Byrnes said some people are buying copies at independent bookstores and mailing them in. And there are “conversations” with small bookstores to see if they’d set up collection boxes so patrons can donate books.
The Democrats’ list has 71 titles. The largest number of books donated are the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” along with “The Kite Runner,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “This Book Is Gay” and several by Toni Morrison, including “Beloved.”
“Some of the conversations that I’ve had with folks are those are books from their childhood. They are books that helped them develop into the person they are now, and they’re books that they feel represent their history, American history, and they want students and families to have easy access to those types of books,” Byrnes said.
Raymond bought “A Lesson Before Dying,” by Ernest Gaines, about a man visiting a Black youth in the 1940s who was on Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit. An Oprah’s Book Club selection and National Book Critics Circle award winner, Raymond had read it in a book club.
She also bought “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.” Raymond said she’s read previous writings from one of its authors.
On Jan. 29, Corie Pinero, chair of the Moms for Libraries Broward committee — an affiliate of the conservative, traditional values Moms for Liberty — emailed school district leaders with a list of what the organization termed “sexually explicit and age inappropriate library media that is currently in Broward County schools.”
Pinero wrote that “we want to move forward with removing these books from BCPS libraries county wide. It is our goal to have age appropriate, non sexually explicit and educational library media in our schools only by the end of this year.”
Attached was a list of 15 books — several of which contain LGBTQ subject matter. The email also complained that some books the organization objected to “are STILL in some of our elementary schools so I want to see them removed immediately.”
Moms for Libraries offered to donate different books to public schools in Broward County — ones that “contain age appropriate content, academic literature and are inspiring for young minds.”
Among the publishers it said books would come from is Brave Books. Online it describes its titles as “conservative children’s books,” “an alternative to the current progressive agenda dominating children’s literature,” “children’s books you can trust!” and “the antidote to woke culture lies.”
Sabrina Artiles, Moms for Liberty Broward chapter chair, responding to questions via email, said her organization’s mission is “protecting children and parental rights in education and in all levels of government. Moms for Liberty nationally and locally has never banned any books, we follow the laws that protect children in school.
“We are challenging the books available to minors without parental knowledge or consent that contain graphic content such as rape, incest, sex and pedophilia. We’ve also challenged inaccurate depictions of history and divisive concepts such as critical race theory. These books do not belong in our K-12 public schools. If a parent chooses to expose their child to these books they are available at the county libraries or they may purchase them elsewhere,” the statement said.
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said there isn’t any sexualization of children going on in the schools. “I don’t believe we should be banning any books.”
The Moms for Liberty statement said the effort “to protect the innocence of children and to advocate for parental rights is a non-partisan one.”
Grace Carrington, Broward’s state Democratic committeewoman, said what’s happening in Florida is fueled by DeSantis’ attempt to rev up the national Republican primary electorate for a possible run for his party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
“Remember these are supposed to be the folks that believe in freedom and liberty. And if you don’t have the freedom to pick up a book and read it and decipher it, that just tells me we are going in the wrong direction,” she said. “I understand what he’s doing. He’s trying to play to his base and to ‘own the libs.’”
Broward School Board member Sarah Leonardi, a Democrat, also said the issue has been ginned up and made political by the right.
“The Moms for Liberty, members of that group, have requested us to remove books, and it just so happens that a lot of those books have representations of LGBTQ people and or people of color. And I just think that’s an interesting element,” Leonardi said, adding that some people are “scared of what’s different from them. But that doesn’t give them the right to ban representation of LGBTQ people or people of color from our schools.”
The DeSantis administration described 2022 as the “Year of the Parent.”
Among the changes he championed and signed into law:
- Restrictions on the way race-related issues are taught in public schools. Prohibited are lessons that might cause some people to feel uncomfortable, such as instruction that advances concepts, including that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”
- Prohibition on classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade and limits it in older grades. Republican backers called it the “Parental Rights in Education” law; critics derided it as the “don’t say gay” law.
- A law imposing restrictions on public school decisions about what to place in their libraries or classrooms.
At the signing ceremony, DeSantis was joined by a member of Moms for Liberty who led book challenges in Orange County Public Schools.
The law requires media specialists — who used to be called librarians — to take new state-provided training.
Elementary schools must publish online all books available in their libraries or on a classroom book list, and districts must post their procedures for selecting library materials. District committees that make textbook purchase decisions must include parents and be open to the public. All school districts have to report the titles of any challenged books so the state Department of Education can create a master list.
School districts statewide have been removing books, including in Broward, Leonardi said. After a 2022 complaint from Moms for Liberty, the Broward School District ordered the removal of 11 books from school libraries or restricting them to certain age groups.
A state rule adopted last month by the DeSantis-appointed state Board of Education places Florida’s school librarians under new scrutiny, and potential criminal prosecution, urging them to “err on the side of caution” when selecting books for their campuses.
Supporters said new regulations and training would result in better scrutiny of books in media centers and classrooms and more ways for parents to learn what is on school shelves.
Leonardi pointed to the governor’s assertion that he wants to prevent the education system from indoctrinating students. To her, the indoctrination is coming from those who profess they’re against it. “Putting all these restrictions on what goes on, not just in K through 12 classrooms but higher education, that actually is indoctrination.”
Broward County is making an effort to make available books that are or may be banned from school libraries or classrooms.
County Commissioner Beam Furr, a former high school librarian, said the county library system will have copies of all book titles that are removed by the Broward School District. Another objective, he said, is to make sure all students have library cards for the county library system that’s available outside schools.
Other communities have reacted to book removals in different ways.
A Jacksonville bookstore added a “Books Recently Banned in Duval County” display and provided contact information for Duval County School Board members. The county’s district reportedly directed teachers last month to temporarily cover or store classroom library books.
Haymarket Books, which describes itself as a “radical, independent, nonprofit book publisher,” is raising money to send books to young people in Florida in response to DeSantis’ “attacks on the freedom to learn and teach history. We at Haymarket stand in solidarity with all those in Florida and across the country who are organizing to resist.
“We know that the books we publish are dangerous to those in power, especially when they are in the hands of those who are organizing to fight for liberation.”
The Broward Democratic Party effort will last at least through the end of Black History Month, on Feb. 28, but may continue, Byrnes said. He said he hopes the idea spreads statewide.
The national Little Free Library program is “inspired by the readers in Florida who are sharing quality, challenged books in local Little Free Library boxes,” communications director Margret Aldrich said via email. The nonprofit Little Free Libraries organization aims to build community and expand book access.
“Book bans go against our core values,” she said. Through a partnership with publishing house HarperCollins, it shared 1,000 banned books with Little Free Library operators around the country, prioritizing places where books were being banned.
The organization has an online map that lists most Little Free Library locations. There are 288 in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Aldrich said. All together the organization said, there are more than 150,000 registered Little Free Library book-sharing boxes in 115 countries worldwide.
Tom Powers, chairman of the Broward Republican Party, said if parents go with their children to the little free libraries and supervise the book selections, “so be it.”
“It’s the parents’ decision about what their child reads,” he said. “The objection to them is a bureaucracy or School Board encouraging people to read them, not the parents.”
Powers said the Democratic effort is little more than a stunt to get attention. “I think it’s strictly a political job and I don’t think It’ll accomplish anything.”
Byrnes said some donors have asked what else they can do to get involved. And he said he’s heard from another county Democratic Party chair in Florida, who may replicate the book effort.
And, he said, out-of-state book donors have buoyed Democrats, showing they haven’t given up on Florida even if it’s trending more Republican. Three donated books arrived with the message, “Pittsburgh progressives are with you.”