Banned Book Displays at Chamblin Bookmine and Chamblin’s Uptown

by Tim Gilmore, 2/24/2023

1. The Berenstain Bears and the Third Degree Felony

Beneath the sign that says “Recently Banned” are books telling stories of Chinese, Indian, Inuit, Puerto Rican and Dominican backgrounds. Grandfather Tang’s Story by Ann Tompert and Robert Andrew Parker riffs on a Chinese form of storytelling based on cutting seven shapes from a square of paper. Ann Herbert Scott and Glo Coalson’s On Mother’s Lap, first published in 1972, tells of an “Eskimo” boy who learns there’s enough room on his mother’s lap for his baby sister to join him.

The Banned Book Displays are the brainchild of store managers Cari Hamoui at Chamblin’s Uptown and Abby Bell at Chamblin Bookmine. “The vast majority of parents are not upset about their children reading these books,” Cari says. She notes, however, that not only do the victors write the histories, but when political leaders decide who gets to read which books, they “control the narrative” and decide “whose voices get to be heard and whose voices get to be read.”

When my daughters were little, they loved Arthur Dorros’s and Elisa Kleven’s Abuela, telling of a little girl who flies over the streets of New York with her grandmother. The book includes Spanish phrases and English explanations: “Today we’re going to the park. / “El parque es lindo,” says Abuela. / I know what she means. / I think the park is beautiful too.”

The books on display in Chamblin Bookmine and Chamblin’s Uptown were all pulled from school bookshelves across Duval County while librarians struggled to keep up with a new Florida law requiring them to review and censor books that might offend certain parents by teaching about diversity. Though scores of books originally pulled, including The Berenstain Bears and books about Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente, have made it back to the shelves, teachers, students and parents remain confused about which books are deemed acceptable and which books could get a teacher arrested, with a third-degree felony, just for having them in their classroom.

2. Indoctrination

When, in 2021, Governor Ron DeSantis’s former Commissioner of Education said that conservatives needed to take over education and make it ideological, claiming, “Education is our sword,” he spoke directly from the mindset of the private schools that indoctrinated me throughout my childhood.

from the 1972 Trinity Christian Academy yearbook

At those private Christian schools, I learned that evolution was “a lie” because God had created the world in six days. I learned that instead of the earth being 4.5 billion years old, it was only 6,000 years old, a number determined by adding the “begats” in The Book of Genesis: “And Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad 500 years. And Arphaxad lived five and 30 years, and begat Salah,” and so on. I was taught that Science was inherently against God and that Civil Rights and Environmentalism were Communist and Socialist plots created to the destroy the United States. I learned that a woman’s “rightful place” was as servant to her husband, since God had created Eve from Adam’s own rib to serve as his “help meet.”

Dennis Cassell, Trinity’s first football coach, who later called the school a “perfect pedophile paradise,” from the 1988 Trinity Christian Academy yearbook

Trinity Baptist Church, one of Florida’s first “megachurches,” operated Trinity Christian Academy, which I attended through middle school and the start of high school. Like many such schools, Trinity began as an alternative to recently desegregated public schools. For half a century, Trinity covered up the fact that the school’s founder and principal and the church’s pastor, Bob Gray, sexually abused children. Trinity Christian Academy’s first football coach, Dennis Cassell, later called the school a “perfect pedophile paradise.” Gray promised no black child would ever attend his school and called Martin Luther King “Martin Lucifer King.”

In every classroom hung both an American flag and a Christian flag. We pledged allegiance to both. No line separated the education we received in the classroom and the sermons preached in church. History classes taught “Divine Intervention” and that the Founding Fathers did not, in fact, want separation of church and state.

Bob Gray, from the 1989 Trinity Christian Academy yearbook

I was taught the United States was founded as a Christian nation, but had turned its back on God. I learned God had destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality and that the U.S. was on the same path. We sang, “Onward, Christian soldiers, / Marching as to war, / With the cross of Jesus / Going on before!”

3. Bully the Teachers

The strategy is as simple as it is disingenuous. Call the facts and the inquiries you don’t like “indoctrination.” Ban them. Replace them with actual indoctrination of your own.

photo by Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

That’s what politicians are doing with education at every level everywhere in Florida. The bogeyman is anything you can tag with Governor Ron DeSantis’s favorite word: “woke,” a slang term meaning “awakened” to racism, sexism and other categorical injustices. In his reelection victory speech last November, DeSantis said Florida is where such awareness “comes to die,” referring to what he calls “wokeism” in education as “indoctrination.” In his 2022 “Stop WOKE Act,” the acronym stands for “Wrong to Our Kids and Employees.” Any inquiry into whether racism can be “systemic” is now banned as “Critical Race Theory” or CRT. Thousands of educators in Florida have been teaching the historical facts about slavery, Civil Rights, and historic issues like racial discrimination and redlining for years without ever having heard of CRT or “wokeness.”

In early 2022, the State of Florida passed legislation forbidding “instruction” in sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The fact that legislators knew no such instruction was happening didn’t matter. The governor’s spokesperson likened anyone who questioned the law to a “pedophile” and called the law an “anti-grooming bill.”

Shortly thereafter, the governor’s “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” survey was sent to college students and instructors across the state, asking respondents to identify themselves and others at their institution as either “conservative” or “liberal.” The same month, Florida rejected more than two dozen math textbooks for supposedly illegal “wokeness,” many books making no other mention of race than drawings of children with darker skin.

an illustration from a math textbook deemed “Critical Race Theory” and thus banned under the DeSantis administration, image courtesy The New York Times

If all of these new prohibitions were vague, that seemed to be the point. Intimidated, teachers changed their curricula, often excluding any mention of race at all. Teachers had always been underpaid and undervalued and most of them didn’t want to risk their careers when they weren’t even sure what the rules were.

Frederick Douglass, photograph by Matthew Brady

“Stop WOKE” legislation meant parents could sue a school district if a teacher made a student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress” in regards to matters concerning race. Did that mean teachers could no longer assign classic American texts like The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass? Could they be sued? Arrested? Charged with a felony? Have their lives ruined? Just how bad were things about to get?

4. Dim Sum for No One?

At first it surprised Cari Hamoui how many food-related titles showed up as controversial, noting Grace Lin’s Dim Sum for Everyone and Kevin Noble Maillard’s and Juana Martinez-Neal’s Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story. Sharing food, of course, is a primary form of cultural diplomacy, an effective way of teaching diversity.

She and Abby Bell caution that it’s hard to know exactly what books are currently unavailable. Duval County Public Schools officials have pushed back against the word “banned” and claimed the use of the word is “misinformation.” DeSantis himself feigns confusion about how his law is supposed to work. When reporters asked him to respond to the banning of a book about Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente in Jacksonville, he called it a “joke” and said you couldn’t compare Clemente to “having, you know, young kids engaging in sex acts.” DeSantis insinuating that teachers have “young kids” engage “in sex acts” may be his most sickening misrepresentation of teachers yet.

Duval County found a Young Adult novel called The Best Man by Newberry Award winning writer Richard Peck, a warm-hearted story about a boy who becomes the ring bearer in his uncle’s marriage to another man, counted as pornography under new state legislation just for focusing on LGBT issues. Indeed, in Florida politics, “pornography” seems often to be code for LGBT. The Florida Department of Education reminds teachers they can be charged with a felony for having such a book in their classroom and advises them to “err on the side of caution.”

“Part of me is surprised,” Cari says, about the current moral panic, “but given the political climate now, nothing surprises me.” Recalling her own freedom and joy as a child reader, she says, “Everything has just turned upside down since I was a child.”

5. “Hostile Takeover” — Education as a “Sword”

In December 2022, the reading advocacy group PEN America listed 176 books suddenly “banned,” removed from Duval County classrooms for “review.” Those books included The Berenstain Bears and the Big Question by Stan and Jan Berenstain and Before She Was Harriet, about Harriet Tubman, by Lisa Cline-Ransom and James Ransom.

In early 2023, national news stories reported how teachers from Jacksonville and around Florida dealt with new anti-“woke” legislation that mandated all schoolbooks be reviewed by a district employee certified by the state to ensure books were free of LGBT issues or “indoctrination” against systemic racism. A teacher named Brian Covey was fired for sharing a video of bookshelves emptied out while books were under review.

Next the governor said a new Advanced Placement class in African American Studies was “contrary to Florida law” and lacked “educational value.” Maybe, DeSantis said, Florida would do away entirely with Advanced Placement classes, through which many high school students earn college credit.

Another directive ordered that all Diversity, Equity and Inclusion endeavors across the state cease. Previous presentations at a DEI conference I hosted for three years for Florida State College in Jacksonville included topics like how to accommodate deaf students in the classroom, how to recognize and avoid racial microaggressions, how to retain first-generation college students and how to understand students who identify outside traditional gender binaries.

Then the State ordered colleges and universities to send in personal information about their instructors and students. Universities were ordered to hand over the medical records of transgender students. Schools seized their professors’ emails pertaining to diversity and sent them to the state legislature.

photo by Cathy Carter, WUSF Media, February 1, 2023

The governor’s most dramatic act was the “hostile takeover” of New College, a small liberal arts school in Sarasota with fewer than 700 students. The New College Board of Trustees was dismissed and replaced with conservative activists. One new board appointee, Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein, refers to today’s young people in the titles of his 2008 and 2022 books as “the dumbest generation.” The new leadership promised to turn the school into a Christian conservative college, “the Hillsdale of the South.”

While New College is a publicly funded institution, however, Hillsdale is a private conservative Christian liberal arts college in Michigan. New College’s new conservative board fired its president and replaced her with the governor’s own former Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, a University of Florida dropout who later got a law degree from a private Christian university. The board awarded Corcoran a salary more than twice the previous president’s.

image courtesy

While the governor proclaims that schools and colleges indoctrinate students with “woke” ideas, Corcoran openly advocates indoctrinating students with conservative ideology. In a speech at Hillsdale in May 2021, Corcoran said that education should be “100 percent ideological.” For conservatives, Corcoran said, “Education is our sword. That’s our weapon. Education is our weapon.”

6. Reading as Refuge

I’m standing with my notepad perched atop a tower of noir novels on the table where customers leave used books they’d like to trade in for credit. We are, after all, standing in the largest bookstore in the Southeast. All around me, young people with glasses and tattoos sort, stack and peruse books.

“Reading was my refuge,” says Abby Bell. “I was one of those kids who always had their nose in a book.” Kids who don’t have books in their homes are more likely to start reading when they see kids who look like them represented in books. “So many kids only have access to books at school,” she says, “and now that access has been restricted.”

Teachers across the state have covered their bookshelves rather than lose their jobs. A Manatee County teacher named Don Falls placed a sign over his covered bookshelves that reads, “Closed by Order of the Governor.”

Yet Abby and Cari say parents frequently come in and seek out the banned book displays to choose what books to buy their kids. “If you want kids to read books, tell them they can’t read books,” says Chamblin’s bookseller and poet Johnny Masiulewicz. “So many parents come in with lists of books banned in Florida and use them as shopping lists.”

The irony of Duval teachers covering up their bookshelves to avoid being charged with a crime just as schools celebrated “Literacy Week” and just as “Black History Month” began was bitter, but Abby says, “Working in this place, you see the constant reaction of parents. It makes you optimistic.”

photograph of Manatee County teacher Don Falls’s books with a sign saying, “Closed by Order of the Governor,” from Business Insider

Chamblin Bookmine has always made me optimistic. In some ways, this bookstore has been as powerful a component of my education as the colleges I’ve attended. In a lighter moment, Abby and Cari say, “It’s not illegal to read banned books,” and even manage to laugh about it. “For now,” I say and feel slightly ashamed that I stopped the laughter. Even DeSantis can’t stop them from having fun though; a recent Chamblin’s Books Instagram post showed a construction paper Valentine that said, “Are You a Banned Book? Because Baby, You’re on Fire! XO, Ray Bradbury.”

a recent Chamblin’s Books Instagram post