Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of Florida Freedom to Read Project, talks about those 673 banned books, how the list came together and if those books will ever come back.
On Wednesday, the Orlando Sentinel published the list of 673 books that Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) pulled from classrooms to avoid violating the new Florida statute against having any book that “depicts or describes sexual content” in a “classroom library.”
The list runs the gamut from Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and The Bluest Eye (Nobel Prize winner) as well as Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season and Jack Kerouac’s quintessential road trip read, On The Road. Even the anthology of plays — Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata and Women of the Assembly — by Greek playwright Aristophanes was purged.
VoxPopuli spoke with Stephana Ferrell, the co-founder and director of research and insight for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which has been fighting school district book bans across Florida since 2022, to talk about the scope of the list, how the list came together and whether those books will ever come back to the classroom.
VoxPopuli: It’s a stunning list. I don’t know all of the books, but many are classics that I read in high school and middle school. What’s your reaction to seeing the books listed like that?
Stephana Ferrell: It follows what happened in Collier [County] a few months ago. Escambia [County] has over 1,500 titles currently removed from their media centers for the same exact reason: HB 1069. The Florida DOE [Department of Education] added depiction or description of sexual conduct that is not part of the required standards as a reason why someone could bring a challenge.
The problem is that objection criteria is curation criteria as well, which means that now media specialists must look at that and say “Any depiction or description of sexual conduct that is not protected by the standards must come off our shelves, or we should at least remove it from our shelves and ensure that it is in compliance with the law before we put it back."
Books rejected from classroom libraries, will be banned from school media centers too.
The Orange County list is specific to books from teachers’ classroom libraries. Because the state now claims that all classroom libraries are media centers, according to the law, if Orange County rejects a book for the classroom library and says that it's not appropriate for K-12 under the law, that means that they also have to reject it for the media center.
That’s what's coming. As soon as they complete this process for classroom libraries, and they make a final decision on these books, those books will not only not be allowed in the classroom libraries for voluntary reading, they will not be allowed in the media centers as well. In Collier County and Escambia County, they're going through the process now of removing books from their media centers.
VoxPopuli: So let me understand, these are books that teachers voluntarily pulled out of their classroom libraries?
SF: No. Under HB 1467 every classroom library has to be approved by a media specialist. Our organization and others tried to challenge it and said it was taking the law too far. Teachers’ personal collections [of books] in the classroom had never been considered part of a media center, requiring media specialist approval. We fought that, we lost.
Over the summer, Orange County asked teachers to scan their [classroom] libraries so the media specialist could approve every single one of their books before it could be offered to a student for voluntary reading. These are not books that have been assigned as reading. These are just books available for voluntary reading.
VoxPopuli: So, not even books where an objection might be anticipated? For instance, many districts banned books because they have LGBTQ+ characters. The World According to Garp has a central character who’s a trans woman. But you’re saying it’s not just books that would make Moms For Liberty’s wish list. It’s every book.
SF: Yes, every single book had to be approved by a media specialist before a teacher could offer it in the classroom library. These books [listed] were rejected. So they are currently off limits for students in the classrooms where they were available last year.
VoxPopuli; Was any rationale given for the rejected books? I'm looking at Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is a beautiful coming of age story about an Irish girl in turn-of-the-century New York. I read it multiple times as a teenager.
SF: Media specialists were told to err on the side of caution and that their decisions would not only impact themselves, but their colleagues and possibly the district in being held accountable to the law. They were told if there were any references to any sexual content whatsoever, any doubt over age-appropriateness, they were basically advised to reject the book. That’s why we see the list as large as it is.
VoxPopuli: Were you surprised by this?
SF: This is what we've been warning about. You create a vague law that has a lot of punitive actions and create an environment of fear and political attacks. You've politicized our classrooms. You've politicized what books we can voluntarily read. And you've basically created a practice of erring on the side of caution, which essentially means err on the side of censorship to whatever the most conservative viewpoint is in your county, about what is and is not age-appropriate. That's what people are doing right now. So no, we were not surprised.
The Florida DOE had a memo on October 13 that reaffirmed this idea that objection criteria is the same thing as curation criteria. The memo completely left out that the district has the authority to decide where books with sexual conduct could be age and developmentally appropriate.
As early as our middle school grades, we approach topics, such as human trafficking, engaging in premarital sex and what can happen in teenage pregnancy. We address those topics in our standards. So it would be age-appropriate to offer a high-school student a cautionary tale, like Sold about human trafficking, or books like Beloved and The Bluest Eye, which are on AP [Advanced Placement] curriculum lists. They contain harsh topics of sexual abuse, but the stories overall hold a huge amount of literary value.
VoxPopuli: Toni Morrison, who wrote Beloved and The Bluest Eye, frequently shows up on these lists. Gloria Naylor, one of my favorite authors, who wrote The Women of Brewster Place, which has Black and queer characters, is also on the list as is Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, another book about Black women that touches gay themes. Is this just about the sexual content or is this also about race and LGBTQ+ issues?
SF: I will say the Orange County list, from what I have seen, they tried to be as nondiscriminatory as possible. It didn't come down to who the characters were. It was only whether or not there was sexual conduct. There are districts making it about identity, but Orange County does not seem to be one of those.
But it is still a restriction, government censorship on speech, and it is an infringement of First Amendment rights. Orange County applying [the law] indiscriminately towards any book that has sexual conduct shows just how dangerous and just how slippery the slope.
"If there were any references to any sexual content whatsoever, any doubt over age-appropriateness, they were basically advised to reject the book."
VoxPopuli: What happens to our students who aren’t able to pick up a book and read it just because it grabs their attention?
SF: We put our students at a huge disadvantage to compete nationally and globally. You know, there's only one other state right now — Iowa — that has so broadly restricted any books with any sexual conduct whatsoever. They're seeing thousands of removals at a time as well.
These laws put students who attend public school in specific states at a huge disadvantage, especially if they want to further their education outside of the state, if they have goals to move and try to get a job in a state where everyone else competing for that job did not grow up with the same restrictions and limitations and such a narrow view of the world.
VoxPopuli: What are the odds that these books are coming back?
SF: Honestly, we need people to speak up. From the conversation that happened at the school board meeting last week, I would gather it would take very clear guidance from the Florida DOE that gives the district the authority to keep these books in order for them to feel comfortable retaining them.
I filed a special magistrate challenge against one of Orange County’s permanent removals — Marilyn Reynolds’ Shut Up. It's similar in subject matter to The Kite Runner. It is about two brothers, one in high school, one in middle school.The younger brother is sexually assaulted by a trusted family adult. And the brother notices a change in his brother's behavior, but it isn't until he accidentally walks in on the abuse that he realizes his brother needs help. It's about dealing with the guilt of not recognizing something like that is happening to a loved one sooner and then seeking out help and getting support. So it’s a very important book.
[The book] was only available in two high schools in our district. It was challenged in one high school last year (Timber Creek) because it was a part of the curriculum, and a parent didn’t think it was appropriate for the curriculum. It did not go through a very public review process. It was just removed from the curriculum. Then when HB 1069 came out and the district took the position that any sexual conduct was grounds for removal, the district removed the book from both schools.
I filed the objection because I do believe that that book is appropriate and aligned with our health standards for voluntary reading in the library in high schools. I think that removing it without taking it through the review process or without waiting for another objection, violated our district's policy.
So now we're just waiting for the Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz, to either assign a special magistrate or to tell me that my appeal has been rejected.