controversial books

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid will inform School Board members Tuesday during an afternoon work session about the implementation of a new policy that deals with 16 books one conservative groups deemed “pornographic” or “age inappropriate” earlier this year.

Heid will make a presentation on the new procedures, a hybrid opt-in option for the 16 books, along with an already-in-place opt-out procedure for every book in each of the district’s 150 schools. Heid had previously discussed the hybrid system in May, developed based on input from School Board members and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

The books will not be returned to library shelves, but will instead be kept in an area accessible to librarians only; students can check them out if a parent opts in using an online form.

View a presentation showing how Superintendent Heid’s proposal would work for parents. You can see it here or at the end of this article.

School Board members will not be voting on this Tuesday and there will be no public input at the afternoon work session. Members of the public can, however, voice their opinion at the end of Tuesday evening’s School Board meeting.

Last year, Florida Citizens Alliance released a report on 58 books found in various public schools libraries throughout the state that its members deemed inappropriate and why.

Florida Citizens Alliance and County Citizens Defending Freedom say that 16 of the 58 books are found in PCPS libraries and complained that they “are age inappropriate and hypersexualize children, violating numerous Florida Statutes.”  

The issue came to a boil in late January, when CCDF notified Heid that the school district could be in violation of state statutes that prohibit distribution of pornography or “material harmful” to minors and that librarians could face felony charges for each time one of these books was checked out.

Some of the 16 controversial books

The superintendent moved the morning of Jan. 25 to “quarantine” those books until they could be reviewed by two committees the school district formed for that purpose. They read books and made recommendations throughout the spring. 

The 16 books and the grade levels the two committees and superintendent approved them for are:

  • “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan – middle and high school;
  • “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini – middle and high school;
  • “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer – high school;
  • “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher – middle and high school;
  • “The Vincent Boys” by Abbi Glines – high school;
  • “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley – high school;
  • “Real Live Boyfriends” by E. Lockhart – high school;
  • “George” by Alex Gino — all levels;
  • “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings – elementary school;
  • “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier – middle and high school;
  • “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult – high school;
  • “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera – middle and high school;
  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison – high school;
  • “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison — high school;
  • “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins – high school;
  • And “Almost Perfect” by Brian Katcher – high school.

Of the 16 titles reviewed, only the child’s grade-level appropriate titles will appear for parents to opt into.

School Board member Lynn Wilson said he and CCDF, which also opposed students wearing masks and the district’s sexual education curriculum, were concerned about passages in some of the books that graphically portrayed forcible rape and passages that graphically portrayed bestiality.

“I read a handful and I had to stop. I was saddened. It was disheartening, it was horrific, the dehumanizing, defiling of humans and it was violent,” Wilson said during a School Board meeting earlier this year. “The passages I read had that effect on me.” 

Wilson also said that if some of the books in question were movies, they would have an “R” or “NC-17” rating, so he didn’t understand why children were allowed to read them, adding that perhaps there should be a rating system for books. 

According to the Motion Picture Association’s webpage, the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association “issues ratings for motion pictures exhibited and distributed commercially to the public in the United States, with the intent to provide parents information concerning the content of those motion pictures, to aid them in determining the suitability of individual motion pictures for viewing by their children.”  

The review committees, which consisted of teachers, psychologists, parents, students and CCDF members, considered nearly a dozen items about each book, first and foremost the age and grade-level appropriateness. They also considered:  

  • Will reading or listening to this work result in a more compassionate understanding of human beings? 
  • Does this work offer an opportunity to understand and appreciate better the aspirations, achievements, and problems of different cultures and/or minority groups without stressing differences of class, race, color, sex, education, religion, or philosophy in any adverse way? 
  • Are questionable elements of this work an integral part of a worthwhile theme, message, or attempt to develop a character? 
  • In what way(s) does this work support and promote the educational goals and objectives of Polk County Public Schools? 
  • In what way(s) are concepts presented in a manner appropriate to the ability and maturity of your suggested audience? 
  • How does the material make a significant contribution to the history of ideas? 
  • Is the information in this book current and/or accurate in as far as you are aware? 
  • Are illustrations appropriate, in good taste as it relates to the students’ developmental age? 
  • Could the work be considered offensive due to profanity, brutality, sexual behavior, violence, cruelty, abhorrent behavior, political positions, portrayal of societal groups, portrayal of religious groups? 

The groups must also assess the works’ literary intent. 

One issue Heid mentioned during a spring School Board meeting was how many of the 16 books are actually being read by students. The graphic (illustrated) novel “Drama,” about a middle school musical and the angst experienced over teen romances, has been checked out 527 times from more than 50 schools. “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, about teen suicide, has been checked out 70 times at more than a dozen schools.

But five of the books have not been checked out at all in the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years.  They are:

  • “It’s Perfectly Normal’ by Robi H. Harris;
  • “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan;
  • “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins;
  • “Almost Perfect” by Brian Katcher;
  • and “The Vincent Boys” by Abbi Glines. 

PCPS’ libraries currently use a computer system called Destiny that allows parents to opt their children out of individual books. In addition, parents can talk with teachers about alternate assignments if they feel something is inappropriate for their child. But many said the Destiny system was cumbersome, so Heid had district staff work on a technology solution for that.

The Tuesday, July 26, work session is at the Jim Miles Professional Development Center, just north of the Highland City stoplight at 4270 Wallace Road. It is scheduled from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The School Board meeting begins at 5 p.m. in the same location.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at kimberly@lkldnow.com


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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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5 Comments

  1. I can’t speak for all of the books, but if there’s any truth to the allegation; then they SHOULD NOT BE AVAILABLE for “opt-in” with or without the parental permission.
    ** I have an idea; how about if Heid and the school board grow some courage and just ban the garbage? Fire. Them. All.

  2. Your comment is troubling. If I parse your intention, it is that books that you deem “garbage” should not be available under any circumstances to American students. These are, you imply, books you have not read; you are perfectly happy to have others make up your mind for you. Saves you the trouble of thinking. I tremble at the thought of the library you would run. Rows of empty shelves, sparsely punctuated by pamphlets on freedom. No thank you. Not in America. Leave my “Huckleberry Finn” and “Beloved” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” alone, and I’ll leave you to your dim nights spent stewing over all the garbage out there.

  3. The superintendent should honor the decisions of the committees who thoughtfully and thoroughly read the books. That is what the policy requires. Next time the schools need citizens to participate they might not be so willing if they suspect they will be ignored, and their time wasted.

  4. Ted you misinterpreted what I said.
    I chose my wording very carefully. Please reread carefully.

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