by Erika Higgins Ross
It’s hard to imagine that “joy” would be a central theme of a panel entitled “Book Bans: What We’re Doing to Fight Florida’s Anti-Reader Policies,” but it came up again and again as the threat of a rainstorm passed on Saturday afternoon. The joy of reading. The joy of building powerful collaborations. The joy of working with other people who are passionate about reading and democracy and access.
Katie Blankenship, an attorney working with PEN America Florida, did not downplay how dire the political climate has become, but said, “also, there is so much potential for joy in this work.” After listing some of Florida’s anti-democratic politics including the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop the Woke” Acts, as well as the attempts to expand these policies, which are based in blatant animus toward LGBTQI+ and black and brown communities, Blankenship said, “it’s becoming increasingly clear that it was foolish [for the legislature] to go this broad. Floridians are forming grassroots collaborations never seen before. Floridians are fighting back.”
Along with Katie Blankenship (PEN America Florida), the panel featured Judy Blume, Lauren Groff, Mitchell Kaplan, and Stephen Tremaine (Bard Early College).
Judy Blume offered historical context, sharing the story of how in 1970, the three copies of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret that she gave to the library at her children’s elementary school were disappeared by the principal. Yet overall, she said, “the 1970s was a good decade for children book authors.” That changed in the 1980s Reagan era, when “censors came out of the woodwork.”
In response to the rapid escalation in book-banning, Blume found herself in the middle of the fight for freedom. She recounted a televised debate in which she asked Pat Buchanan, after he railed on and on about “filth,” “Mr. Buchanan, are you hung up on masturbation or what?”Blume said that as bad as it was in the 1980s, the current climate is “much scarier…it’s coming from the government now.”
Lauren Groff’s commitment to expanding access and fighting bans has led her to open a bookstore in Gainesville called The Lynx. An Indiegogo fundraiser is available online to support her efforts to create a space for collaboration, open access, a place where anyone can find themselves represented. “Support public education,” she implored the audience when asked what we can do. She emphasized the importance of making sure that LGBTQI+ and black and brown kids can find themselves in books.
Bard Early College offers early college education to students ready at a younger age by piloting programs in public schools. Stephen Tremaine implored us to confront the Florida bans, which are not just of books, but whole subjects. “You can’t say to a young person that they are ready to study at an advanced level but can’t talk about race or gender.”
Blankenship said that although much of the fight will happen in the courts, activism matters now more than ever. The panel stayed focused on what citizens can do: run for school boards, support local libraries, get involved with free speech organizations.
Mitchell Kaplan – founder of Books & Books and the Miami Book Fair, and a warrior in this movement – listed some coalitions that have recently formed in response to the growing extremism in Florida, including Moms for Libros, Families Against Banned Books, and the Freadom Coalition. As the sun reemerged, the amphitheater became a rally, the panel inviting us all into this intense and difficult, yet deeply joyful, fight for everyone to have access to all books.
Erika Higgins Ross is the winner of the KWLS Marianne Russo emerging writer award, on the long-list for the Granum Foundation Prize for her novel-in-progress.