Free speech groups renew calls for DCPS to make ‘Essential Voices’ books available for students

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Duval County Public Schools calls it a “review” for age appropriateness, but a free speech and human rights group is calling it a “book ban.”

There are renewed calls for school leaders to make a list of 176 books available to students, which are under review to check their content. The discussion was rekindled during Tuesday night’s Duval County School Board meeting.

The books were ordered by the District in July 2021, but after arriving in January of this year, the District pressed pause — halting them from hitting library shelves. They include 176 books from the “Essential Voices” collection, a curated list of books focused on diversity and inclusion.

Now, nearly a year later, free speech groups like “Pen America” and “We Need Diverse Books” are calling for the literature to be made available to students. In a letter to the School Board, the coalition of more than 70 authors wrote:

“Together, we urge you to return all 176 book titles purchased as part of the Essential Voices Collection to classroom libraries and request that you commit publicly to a timeline and process for reviewing the Collection.”

Among the titles — a book about the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song with strong, historic Jacksonville roots.

Another title: “Celebrating Different Beliefs,” which explores cultural and spiritual diversity in the world.

“Nya’s Long Walk” is also on the list, based on the true story of a south Sudanese girl’s struggle to find clean drinking water. It’s the picture book companion to “A Long Walk to Water,” a New York Times bestseller and Newberry Medal winner.

That book’s author, Linda Sue Park, appeared at the Duval County School Board meeting to call for the books to be made available.

“I hope your School Board here in Duval County will understand that all the Essential Voices books have been created by people who care deeply about kids and vetted by experts who care deeply about kids and should be on the shelves and not in storage,” Park said.

The District told News4JAX in September that the decision to pull those books from shelves for review was not prompted by any parent complaints. The decision was made in the lead up to new state laws that govern how race, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity, are discussed in schools.

Pen America cited the District’s reasons for pulling the titles, saying in an email: “Academic services identified titles that were either substituted or included content too mature for the grade level for which they were included in that collection.”

The District maintains that the books are not “banned” but rather on-hold for review. The authors say that if children can’t access the books at school, it amounts to the same thing.

In September, the District said that because of staffing shortages the review of those books has been taking far longer than expected.

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