"If you look at the high school reading assigned to me when I was a student at Miami Beach High School 50 years ago, I suspect most all of the books I was reading would be challenged today," says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of the local independent bookstore chain Books & Books and founder of Freadom Florida. "If you're a kid who's a little confused or not sure of your identity, books are a way to open up your world."
Along with the Coral Gables Congregational Church, his Coral Gables bookstore is the South Florida headquarters for Banned Books Week. The national effort — which kicked off on Sunday, October 1, and runs through Saturday, October 7 — is led by the American Library Association, American Booksellers for Free Expression, and several other groups that protect the freedom to highlight and challenge book banning. Books & Books activations include an additional day of gatherings and activities through Sunday, October 8.
Florida leads the country in a terrifying, rising trend of policymakers controlling and limiting information to public school children and college students through insidious means like banning books and curricula. Since July 2022, Florida school districts have banned more than 350 books, many of which are about Black historical figures or address sexual orientation or gender identity.
While right-wing groups leading the charge to suppress students' First Amendment rights are primarily supported by deep-pocketed funders like the Koch brothers, the grassroots pushback is fueled by people power — and the movement is growing.
"Censorship is used as a way of control," says Hedieh Sepehri of the Freadom Coalition, which brings together many groups in the state that are taking action. "Where history is being whitewashed, where public education is politicized, where educators are being attacked — there is no choice but to come together and join forces in a coalition."
In South Florida, Banned Books Week kicked off on Sunday, October 1, with participants starting the day at Coral Gables Congregational Church, known as "the sanctuary for banned books," to hear Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner's service. Hafner says censorship "stands in direct opposition to the Constitution and its promises of liberty and freedom, including the freedom of speech and religion."
A "Freadom Walk" to Books & Books in Coral Gables followed, which ended with a meet and greet with Freadom Coalition members to kick off a week of activations to inform, refuel, and build the movement.
People should come to the events with banned books in mind. Instead of traditional name tags, they can fill out a "The Banned Book That I Would Like to See Unbanned Is..." tag. Coral Gables Art Cinema will be screening films based on books that have been banned, including Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Books & Books Key West partner Judy Blume and George Orwell's 1984.
On Monday, during Comedy Unbanned, the comedians of Villain Theater perform classic banned comedy routines by George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and others. Tuesday, Florida author Lauren Groff discusses her latest novel, The Vaster Wilds, alongside trivia night and bingo, banned books edition. On Wednesday, a PEN America Panel features Brad Meltzer of the "I Am" series and Full Disclosure author Camryn Garrett, both of whom have had their books banned. Thursday, "Banned Books" happy hour will include a live touch-up of the mural "Censorship Leaves Us In the Dark," and on Friday, you can have a blind date with a banned book.
Moleskine will be at the Coral Gables store on Saturday and Coconut Grove store on Sunday to imprint journals with a single word of the purchaser's choice to highlight the importance of words. Elyssa Maxx Goodman, author of Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City, will do a reading.
Sunday will feature authors of the "Rebel Girls" series for kids and a visit from the New Republic bus. It's on tour to give librarians and educators crucial information on how to protect themselves from bans and ways to push back. The New Republic will also provide librarians and educators with ten free books, who will also receive a 20 percent discount at Books & Books.
"It's a way of raising awareness for and resistance to what is a very irrational, performative policy that is being developed simply to create trauma for people," Kaplan says. "There's education to allow people to know what's going on. There is a sense of solidarity in knowing that you're not alone. And there is the ability to become active and push back so you don't feel powerless."
Banned Books Week is about letting people know they're not alone in this fight. Most importantly, Kaplan says, "We have to be vigilant."
The Freadom Coalition includes Families Against Banning Books, Moms for Libros, Florida Freedom to Read Project, PEN America, Southern Poverty Law Center, Miami Freedom Project, Books and Books, Democratic Public Education Caucus, PS305, Cuban American Women Supporting Democracy (CAWSD), National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAS), Broward Moms, United Teachers of Dade, and ACLU of Florida.
Banned Books Week. Through Sunday, October 8, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com.