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When their school district in Florida took books off the shelves, this community built their own little libraries

Brick Demique (right) handed off books to Didi Poitier as they restocked a little free library.Corey Perrine for the Boston Globe

Class War

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How culture war politics are changing the shape of education around the country.

JACKSONVILLE — Mackenzie Crane grew up in northeast Florida and was thrilled when work brought her back to Jacksonville. She bought a house near her parents, and regularly took her dog to the beach.

But politics has increasingly clouded her view of her home state, including, she said, policies aimed at higher education and women’s health. Instead of giving in to despair, however, Crane decided to engage in a small act of resistance — one made of wood planks, a few nails, and an array of book titles no longer found in the schools of Duval County. These little libraries, perched on wooden support beams, are being erected in the yards and businesses of volunteers who want to ensure that local children still see themselves reflected in books that are readily available to them.

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“It has been a frustrating time in Florida politics, and I regularly feel outraged,” Crane, 31, said as she watched a team of volunteers install a box in her front yard. “When I learned about this project, this felt like something that, as opposed to screaming into the void on social media, it felt very joyful. It felt like a very positive and hopeful response, and that’s something I wanted to be a part of.”

The new structures — dubbed “Little Free Diverse Libraries” by their creators — are a result of a partnership between 904WARD, a social justice-focused community organization, and Yellow House, a local art gallery. They aim to put up 20 bookcases stocked with authors and titles like “Soldier for Equality,” and “Rainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made History,” and “Dim Sum for Everyone!” Each box is painted by a local artist and features a mural of an activist or author like the Black science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler and Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.

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It began as a project to encourage children to read in 2021 but morphed into a more urgent effort as the Republican Legislature passed a slate of laws that critics say paved the way for book bans.

Such bans have increased dramatically across the country this past school year, but critics say Florida has become a particular hot spot for censorship, due to laws championed by Republican presidential candidate and current Governor Ron DeSantis and passed by the Legislature.

“We’ve seen the way [state policy has] burdened media specialists, librarians, and educators and has also led to books being removed out of fear of being out of compliance in any of these three pieces of legislation,” said Kasey Meehan, director of PEN America’s Freedom to Read Program. The situation has resulted in “heightened banning happening across the state,” she said.

The state laws in question include legislation that prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity and was recently expanded; a bill that rolls back education around race; and an education bill that requires reading material in school libraries to be reviewed by a certified media specialist.

How those laws have been interpreted by schools varies county by county. In Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, the public school system has implemented a review process that has resulted in an unspecified number of books unavailable to students, including more than a dozen on a “Not-Approved List.” Dozens more were returned to a bookseller. According to the district’s spokesperson Tracy Pierce, “the vast majority” of books will be available to students when they return in the next few weeks. But there’s no timeline for when the review process for the district’s more than 1.6 million books will be complete, or clarity for how much of its complete collection remains to be reviewed.

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Regarding the books that were returned, Pierce said 14 were not ordered and the others “were titles that we ordered but upon review, we determined they would not comply with new legislation.”

Classroom libraries, which are part of the district’s collection but distinct from school media centers, have been a priority for the review.

“Books not on the district-approved list or not approved by a certificated media specialist need to be covered or stored and paused for student use,” said Paula Renfro, chief academic officer, in a guidance video published by the district in January.

At a February school board workshop, it was clear how unevenly the district’s book review was playing out in Duval County schools. Administration officials described some classroom libraries with caution tape over a book collection. Another had an “under construction: see you soon” sign to cover up shelves. One school member said they saw a media center covered in paper, giving the appearance of being closed to students, which a school official responded to by saying that the center may have been closed because the media specialist might have been reviewing books.

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Asked about those examples, Pierce said in a statement that “[s]ome principals, out of an abundance of caution, interpreted directions and guidance more intensively. We provided additional guidance to those leaders, and they appropriately adjusted their message to teachers. In their defense, the state training stressed the accountability of the school principal with respect to the books and materials made available to students.”

Pierce said that all the district’s media centers will be open to students by the time the new school year begins.

The district sees its stance on book reviews as being prudent in protecting staff. In defending the review system at a school board workshop, then-Duval County superintendent Diana Greene said that part of the challenge is that local schools have so much material that could potentially be challenged by state statutes because it serves such a diverse student population. The county’s public school district serves more than 100,000 students — Black and Hispanic students made up 59 percent of the enrolled students for the last school year.

DeSantis and his administration have characterized the furor created by his policies as a “book ban hoax” and have downplayed the number of books taken away from students. In a March press conference, he said the school district in Duval was trying to create “friction” with such a complex book review process, while most schools had been able to follow state law smoothly. DeSantis’ administration did not answer a question from the Globe in May about what he meant by that comment; his office referred a list of questions to the state Department of Education.

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“The State of Florida does not ban books. There is not a banned book list. Any bare bookshelves in a media center or classroom are simply staged for political messaging,” said Cassie Palelis, an Education Department spokesperson, in an email to the Globe in May.

Some parents have grown frustrated at the situation, and concerned for students.

“It is very, very difficult to replace what is lost when these districts choose to remove books from school libraries,” said Stephana Ferrell, director of research and insight with Florida Freedom to Read Project. “But we all have to take that next step and show up to our school board meetings and say that we’re not going to tolerate this, because if we’re not making those efforts as well, there’s no amount of free book distributions that will ever recover the loss of removing these books from schools.”

But the band of volunteers continuing to build the little libraries hope they will be both a valuable resource, if on a small scale, and a reminder of students’ right to read.

“They don’t solve the problem, but they’re a start,” said ReGina Newkirk Rucci, director of equity for 904WARD, as she set up one of the boxes. “How can we still ensure that kids see themselves represented in books and they see other people’s experiences as well? How can we give adults information and a glimpse into the life and challenges of another person — a person of a different race, a different gender, a different identity? We can do that through these libraries.”


Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at lissandra.villa@globe.com. Follow her @LissandraVilla.