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Nearly 700 books have been removed from classroom libraries in one Florida county

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Orange County, Fla. - that's Orlando and the surrounding area - nearly 700 books have been removed from classroom libraries. Technically, these books are on standby, waiting to be reviewed for inappropriate sexual content by a media specialist. But as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, it could take years before these books find themselves back in a classroom, if they find themselves back.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It all started earlier this year with a small change in language in the Florida law books. To go back a bit, it's been the law since last year that all books in, quote, "media centers" in Florida schools have to be approved as age-appropriate by a media specialist. But earlier this summer, some new language went into effect specifying that media centers includes classroom libraries.

STEPHANA FERRELL: These personal collections that were just available for kids to read in their free time when they finish up work or to take home with them to read because they're not going to get to the school library, those all of a sudden became something that had to be approved by a certified media specialist.

LIMBONG: That's Stephana Ferrell, the director of research and insight for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which is an advocacy group that pushes back against book challenges in public schools. They're also the group that requested the data of all these books being pulled from the Orange County Public School District. And digging into the titles, frequently banned books, such as Maia Kobabe's memoir "Gender Queer" and George M. Johnson's "All Boys Aren't Blue" and John Green's "Looking For Alaska," are on the list, but also books by Nicholas Sparks, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, Jodi Picoult, John Milton and Ovid are on this list. Here's Ferrell again.

FERRELL: What we have now is really big government writing this broad language that says any depiction or description of sexual conduct, regardless of its context or intent, as - if it's not required in the standards, it's not allowed on the library shelf, whether it's classroom library or the media center. And that's what's happening right now.

LIMBONG: The Orange County Public School District didn't offer anyone up for an interview, but said that these rules were set in place by the Florida Department of Education, which hasn't responded for a request for comment yet. But at a recent school board meeting, Orange County Public School Board member Karen Castor Dentel noted that the media specialists are incentivized to be as careful as possible when reviewing these books.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREN CASTOR DENTEL: They are afraid of losing their license and their livelihood, so it's a great fear. They - we've seen the state come after individual teachers, even in Orange County. That's where the fear is. They're erring on the side of losing their license. And they're being so extreme that they're removing books like "No, David!"

LIMBONG: "No, David!" is the Caldecott-winning picture book where in one scene, little David runs down the street naked and you can see his butt. Anyway, at that board meeting, superintendent Maria F. Vazquez noted that because there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books, the review process will take a while. Ferrell says it could take years. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.