Iris Mogul yearned for a space in South Florida where she could indulge in discussions about the written word with like-minded people. That’s when the 16-year-old came up with a bright idea: start a group that meets at once a month at Books & Books in Coral Gables.
The books they dissect in the meetings, however, have been banned.
“It was kind of like a double whammy because it’s like an act of resistance... and it’s a way to start a book club and talk to people,” said Mogul, a student a dual enrollment program at Florida International University.
As part of Florida’s expanded “Parental Rights in Education” law, one parent or community member can object to instructional material or a school library book. The law, signed in May, requires the book or materials to be removed within five days of the objection and remain unavailable to students until the issue is resolved. More books were pulled from shelves in Florida public schools than in any other state last school year.
Mogul was one of dozens of people who gathered to protest censorship at the bookstore Sunday afternoon. The crowd marched from the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, where Pastor Laurie Hafner’s message to her congregation weaved together faith and the impact of book bans across the country.
Books bans, Hafner said, are a threat to society — and spirituality — because they limit people’s ability to learn about “the diverse nature of God through other human beings.”
“It’s far too often about racism, misogyny, homophobia and classicism. It’s about concealing painful truths and the whitewashing of American history,” Hafner said during the service. “It is about denying our young people the God-given right to think critically, and in turn, to develop empathy.”
In Florida, the freedom to read is under attack, said Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Books & Books. That’s why Kaplan turned to the Coral Gables church, which calls itself “a sanctuary for banned books,” to kick off Banned Books Week.
“Reading is all about empathy,” Kaplan said. “It’s all about learning one’s history and the history of others. If you attempt to restrict that, what you’re doing is... whitewashing history in a way that doesn’t allow young people to really understand both the beauty of this democracy that we live in, as well as all of the things we need to do to make it even better.”
Mayade Ersoff, a history teacher at Palmetto Middle School, said she joined the march so that her students — and future generations — have the opportunity to read the same books that she did.
“New learners are going to learn lies about our history, and I refuse to do that,” Ersoff said. “I refuse to push lies on my students. That’s not what I was hired for. That’s not what teaching and learning is about.”
When Hedieh Sepehri noticed books were under attack, she decided to act even though her children are no longer in the public school system. She founded the coalition Families Against Banning Books to speak out for those who couldn’t.
For Sepehri, book bans are about more than books or their messages.
“It’s about rewriting history,” Sepehri said. “It’s about censorship. It’s about control. It’s about misogyny and sexism and racism.”