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Opinion Ron DeSantis’s book ban mania targets Jodi Picoult — and she hits back

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
5 min

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants you to know he’d never dream of engaging in mass censorship. He held a recent event challenging criticism of his classroom book restrictions as a “hoax,” releasing a video suggesting only “porn” and “hate” are targeted for removal.

There’s a big problem with DeSantis’s claims: The people deciding which books to remove from classrooms and school libraries didn’t get the memo. In many cases, the notion that banned books meet the highly objectionable criteria he detailed is an enormous stretch.

This week, Florida’s Martin County released a list of dozens of books targeted for removal from school libraries, as officials struggle to interpret a bill DeSantis signed in the name of “transparency” in school materials. The episode suggests his decrees are increasingly encouraging local officials to adopt censoring decisions with disturbingly vague rationales and absurdly sweeping scope.

Numerous titles by well-known authors such as Jodi Picoult, Toni Morrison and James Patterson have been pulled from library shelves. The removal list includes Picoult’s novel “The Storyteller” about the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor who meets an elderly former SS officer. It contains some violent scenes told in flashbacks from World War II and an assisted suicide.

“Banning ‘The Storyteller’ is shocking, as it is about the Holocaust and has never been banned before,” Picoult told us in an email.

“Martin County is the first to ban twenty of my books at once,” Picoult said, slamming such bans as “a shocking breach of freedom of speech and freedom of information.” A coastal county in the southeastern part of the state, Martin County is heavily Republican.

Picoult said she’s puzzled by the ban, because she does not “write adult romance,” as objections filed against her books claimed.

“Most of the books pulled do not even have a single kiss in them,” Picoult told us. “They do, however, include gay characters, and issues like racism, disability, abortion rights, gun control, and other topics that might make a kid think differently from their parents.”

“We have actual proof that marginalized kids who read books about marginalized characters wind up feeling less alone,” Picoult continued. “Books bridge divides between people. Book bans create them.”

In the case of “The Storyteller” and virtually all the other books by Picoult and others that are getting removed, the county’s removal directive cites guidance from Florida’s Department of Education. It directs educators to “err on the side of caution,” urging them to nix material that they wouldn’t be “comfortable reading aloud.”

The state’s absurdly vague directive seems almost designed to invite abuse, not only by school officials making the decisions, but also by parents who call for removals. Underscoring the point, documents obtained from the county by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which were shared with us, cite one person as the primary objector to virtually all of these books.

That objector? Julie Marshall, who in addition to being a concerned parent also heads the local chapter of Moms For Liberty, a group that pressures school boards and officials to remove all kinds of materials that violate conservative ideology on race and sexuality.

Marshall rejects the idea that she supports book banning, and says she represents a larger group of parents. “At this point, we believe we have challenged the most obscene and age inappropriate books,” she emailed us. A spokesperson for the Martin County school district pointed out that there’s a process in place governing how these decisions are made.

Other titles getting removed include “Mighty Jack and the Goblin King,” a graphic novel featuring kids traveling through a magic portal and fighting monsters. One citizen (not Marshall this time) filed an objection noting that at one point the sister yells at her brother, “Jack, you ass! Stop it!”

Then there’s “Drama,” a graphic novel about a school play in which a boy who wears a dress as part of the production has an onstage kiss with another boy actor. Just wait until these parents hear about “Twelfth Night.”

Those last two books are apparently being removed only from elementary schools. “But if the rationale to remove the books is as thin as it seems, that alone is egregious,” Jonathan Friedman, who oversees PEN America’s tracking of book bans, told us. “You can’t just remove books from schools because one person objects. That’s absurd. Unfortunately, that’s what seems to have happened here.”

As we’ve detailed, the multiple new laws DeSantis has signed combine deliberately vague directives with the threat of frightening penalties to create a climate of uncertainty and fear. This appears deliberately designed to get school officials to err on the side of censorship, and to get teachers to muzzle themselves to avoid accidentally crossing fuzzy lines into violations of orthodoxy. It invites lone activists to designate themselves veritable commissars of local book purging.

In Martin County, this strategy is unfolding exactly as intended.