parenting·5 min read

Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ and 100 Other Books Now Have Warning Labels in Dozens of Florida Schools

Not a Book Ban, Yet. Florida Schools Add Book Warning Labels
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images
Aug 12, 2022

The Collier County Public Schools district (made up of 63 schools) placed advisory labels on 115 books found in elementary, middle, and high school libraries. And anti-censorship groups say it’s the first time they’ve seen a school district make that move.

You may recognize some of them from your English class reading list: “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. And many of the books cover LGBTQIA+, race, and sexual topics.

The label is a warning to parents that the book “has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students.” 

Photo courtesy of Collier County Public Schools

In an email to theSkimm, a district spokesperson said the labels were “an operational matter involving the district’s senior leadership.” And that the labels “were discussed by leadership with the school board at public meetings to keep the board and the public informed.” But the board never had a vote to approve the labels, adding “parents and community members had expressed concern” over the books. 

What are people saying about the warning labels?

The district wouldn’t specify who exactly was “concerned” about the books. But the conservative nonprofit Florida Citizens Alliance has been pushing Florida districts (including Collier County) to remove certain books for years. Last year, the group released a Porn in Schools Report with a list of books found in Florida districts that have “sexually explicit content” and “promote gender self-identification and same-sex marriage.” 

Keith Flaugh, the organization’s co-founder, said 100+ books in Collier County go against Florida statutes on obscenity (847.001, 847.012) and age-appropriate materials in schools (1006.28). 

Flaugh said the labels don’t go far enough. And that they would only draw more attention to the books. 

“We're talking about protecting our kids from a safety point of view, just like we don't allow guns and drugs in schools. This is no different. This is material that's age inappropriate and sexually explicit. And according to Florida statutes, should not be in public school systems,” he said. 

But PEN America, a nonprofit that promotes free speech, said the labels are alarming. 

“This seems to have been done without any kind of reasonable process whatsoever,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program. The list of books was put together in a rag-tag fashion. It is not itself based on a thorough consideration of these books.”

Friedman said he’s not aware of another school district using warning labels on books. But since July of 2021, PEN America found that 138 school districts in 32 states had banned about 2,500 books.

He said the list clearly targeted LGBTQIA+ and race-themed books.

“It might reinforce already existing stigmas and feelings of marginalization around certain identities, certain narratives, and certain critiques of society. And if the whole point of a library is to support intellectual freedom and for people to be able to find books they want to read, this bizarre choice seems to be very much at odds with those core principles,” said Friedman. 

What books got warning labels?

The list includes books about the lived experiences of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ youth that have made it on banned-book lists across the country. Think: “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” and award-winning books by renowned American historian and antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi

Also included are “Water for Elephants,” “The Hate U Give,” and “Thirteen Reasons Why (which all have been adapted for TV) and “Everywhere Babies,” “Julián is a Mermaid,” and “And Tango Makes Three” (popular children’s books).

Design: theSkimm | Photos: HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Books

Here’s the complete list of books with warning labels provided by the school district.

This isn’t the same thing as a book ban, right?

Right. The books are still available in school libraries and online. 

This may be the first time a school district adds warning labels on books. But the convo on book bans is not new to Florida — especially since the Parental Rights in Education bill, known as the “Don't Say Gay” bill, became law. It prevents teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with students in grades K-3. 

The Florida Department of Education recently rejected dozens of math textbooks in public schools because they included “prohibited topics.” And in July, the Miami-Dade School Board (the state’s largest school district) banned sexual education textbooks, leaving students without a sex ed curriculum. 

What happens next with the warning labels on these books?

The labels are currently on 115 books in all school district libraries (physical copies and online versions). The district said none of the books have been removed. But that could change. A spokesperson said district leaders would review the labels, but when and how is TBA. 

Friedman worries the books will be banned altogether. 

“Where this gets so unnerving is that in some cases they are [very clearly] targeting LGBTQ representation, but then in other cases, these might be books that are just about being different or being yourself or not being bullied, finding your authentic identity,” he said. 

theSkimm

Literary classics most of us read in school (if you wanted to get an A in English, at least) have been added to the “proceed with caution” library section in dozens of Florida schools. Supporters say they want to protect students from “offensive” content. And while it’s not a straight-up book ban (yet), others worry it’ll restrict kids’ access to diverse topics in literature. 

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