Woods: Clay County parent targets Captain Underpants, Stephen King and "120 Banned Books"

The Little Free Library box inside Cutz-Linez & Trimz barber shop on Moncrief Road showcases books from diverse authors, making them available at no charge. The box is the first outlet for the Unbanned Book Club, a Jacksonville-centered project to circulate books that have been banned or challenged at school systems.

There’s a copy of a book called “120 Banned Books” in the library at Orange Park High School. Or at least it has been there in the past.

If one Clay County parent has his way, when nearly 40,000 students return to the county’s public schools next month none of them will be able to go to a school library and find a copy of “120 Banned Books” — a book that traces the censorship histories of everything from “Animal Farm” to “Fahrenheit 451,” the Bible and the Harry Potter series.

Beyond that, if one parent has his way, none of Clay County’s K-8 students will be able to read “Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stink-A-Lot” at their schools, and none of Clay County’s high school students will be able to find four of Stephen King’s books in their school libraries.

This summer Bruce Friedman has filed formal challenges with the school district for dozens of books.

On each challenge form, when asked to give a reason for the request, Friedman wrote: “Protect Children!!”

And in each case, when asked what he believes could be the result of a student reading this material, he wrote two words in all caps: “DAMAGED SOULS.”

'We'll take them down one book at a time'

This is a continuation of what Friedman started doing last year, not long after moving from New York to Northeast Florida and becoming president of the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education.

During the last school year, Friedman told a Florida Department of Education group tasked with recommending library rules that he had compiled a list of 3,600 books that contained “concerning content.” He said that, because of such content, he prohibited his son from going to his high school library.

“Our libraries have more than a little poison in them,” he said. “Whether it’s porn, critical race theory, social-emotional learning, fluid gender. Pick your poison. None of it is OK for my boy.”

He told the group to “clean up this mess or like I’m doing locally, we’ll take them down one book at a time.”

Friedman spent quite a bit of time during the school year trying to do that — and, to a certain degree, he and others around the state succeeded.

State laws passed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis made it easier for parents (or even community members who aren’t parents) to challenge books. Not only did this lead to an increase in book challenges across the state, when coupled with the fear of repercussions, it led districts to “deselect” some books on their own, removing them from circulation.

Clay County ended up with more than 400 titles on its “reconsideration list” last school year — and more than 90 percent of the challenges were filed by Friedman.

These challenges, at least temporarily, removed these books from shelves. Per state statute, when books are challenged, they must be removed within seven days. Once books are reviewed, they either go back on the shelf or they’re removed for good.

This process, of course, takes time and money. A Clay County district spokesperson said that on average, individuals have been spending about 25 hours a week handling challenges. Last school year, after reviews, hundreds of challenged books returned to shelves. But more than 100 ended up with their status as “remove from ALL libraries.” And at least 50 more were either “deselected” or “weeded,” including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner.”

Not that this led Friedman to take the summer off from his mission to create what he has described as “clean” school libraries.

As of a few days ago, Clay County had received 45 book challenges this summer — all from, according to the district, one individual.

Trying to ban book about banned books

The latest challenges included “120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature.”

“Yes, I recognize the irony here,” Friedman wrote.

When prompted on the form to answer whether this book violates F.S. Chapter 847 regarding Obscenity — a 2022 state law about exposing minors to harmful materials — he circled “yes” and added “of course.”

“There is often good reason to keep a book away from a child,” he added. “This book is (by its name) filled with such horrors.”

Speaking of horrors, his most-challenged author this summer was Stephen King.

About “Apt Pupil,” Friedman wrote, “IT’S PORN.” He attached pages with examples of explicit descriptions in it and, in several other challenges of King's books, “Carrie,” “Elevation” and “It.”

He wrote that King is “prolific and problematic” and, at the end of one of these submissions, concluded: “Please consider removing ALL Stephen King from our schools.”

A sample of some of the other challenges:

— “Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot,” by Dav Pilkey.

After giving the usual reason for the challenge (“Protect Children!”) and feared repercussions of exposing students to it (“DAMAGED SOULS”), he provided the specifics about what he says is objectionable about the 12th and final book in this wildly popular series — “Page 111, Harold and his husband.

— “Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen.

A wilderness survival novel about a 13-year-old son of divorced parents, traveling on a small plane to Canada to spend the summer with his father, the pilot suffering a heart attack, the plane crashing. The book was awarded a 1986 Newbery – a fact Friedman criticized in his challenge, calling the American Library Association honor “untrustworthy.”

In this case, Friedman circled “no” about the obscenity law, adding that there are “other concerns” in the boy’s story — “with a suicide attempt, secrets, parental infidelity, divorce … airplane pilots’ fish-eaten/decomposed head, self-harm (cutting).”

— “American Street,” by Ibi Zoboi

Reviews of the 2017 National Book Award finalist describe it as the gritty and haunting tale of a Haitian teenage immigrant. Friedman said it is not fit for Clay County high school or junior high students because of “CRT/racism/anti-police, drugs, dealing, overdose, prostitution, violence, homelessness.”

In his challenges for the 45 books, he noted graphic accounts of violence, sex, rape, child abuse, and numerous other potentially disturbing scenarios — which also is what a South Florida rabbi cited when, to make a point about book banning, he recently challenged one book: the Bible.

When the new bills were passed last year, the governor’s office said this isn’t about banning books. It’s about preserving “the rights of parents to make decisions about what materials their children are exposed to in school.”

But here’s the thing: Some parents want their children exposed to the books that are being challenged and, in some cases, removed. Some parents are happy that their kids are gobbling up John Green books (among those targeted in Green’s hometown of Orlando). Some parents are glad their kids get excited about at a young age by reading James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” series (among the books challenged last spring by a Moms for Liberty member in Stuart County).

Twenty of Jodi Picoult’s books also were challenged in Martin County, described as “adult romance.”

Picoult responded by saying she was surprised to see her work described that way — particularly “The Storyteller,” which chronicles the growth of anti-Semitism and facism in Nazi Germany.

But beyond that, she made a broader point — one that some parents keep sharing, posting on social media.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with a parent deciding a certain book is not right for her child. There is a colossal problem with a parent deciding that, therefore, no child should be allowed to read that book.” – Jodi Picoult

Among the books a parent has decided no child should be allowed to read in Clay County schools: “Picture Perfect,” by Jodi Picoult.

“Repeat offender,” Friedman wrote in his latest batch of challenges.

It’s worth noting that last year Clay County offered an “individualized” school library access plan, giving parents a variety of ways to control or monitor what their children read — everything from receiving emails about books their children checked out to completely banning library access.

That wasn’t what Friedman and others around the state were looking for when talking about parental rights.

He hasn’t just decided no child in Clay County public schools should be allowed to read “120 Banned Books.” He has decided to try to ban hundreds of books from schools, to keep them out of the hands of tens of thousands of other parents' children.

mwoods@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4212

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: '120 Banned Books' among the latest targets for Clay County parent