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A Boston-based activist is sending banned books to Florida

A Banned Books Week display is at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx borough of New York City on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Ted Shaffrey/AP
A Banned Books Week display is at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx borough of New York City on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

A Boston software engineer has joined the crusade against banning books in Florida.

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Paul English, the co-founder of the travel site Kayak, recently launchedBanned Books USA, an initiative that provides books that have been banned, removed, or challenged in Florida to any residents of the state. All they have to do is pay the shipping.

English said he was concerned reading reports about books being challenged in some school districts across the state.

“The stuff that’s being taken off the shelves, like Toni Morrison…it’s just crazy,” he said. “The hundreds of books that have been challenged or banned reach across many topics but a lot of it is Florida is trying to whitewash history and remove the story of marginalized people.”

RELATED: Escambia school board removes three books from libraries

Many of the challenges to books in Escambia County and other districts across the state were in response to Florida laws such as HB 7, otherwise known as “The Stop WOKE Act,” and HB 1557 — the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, or “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Part of Banned Books USA’s mission is to put the books in question into the hands of people who would want to read them but cannot access them. Another part is raising awareness. For now, the focus is on Florida. If it goes well, English said he’s looking at Texas.

“I hope it not only provides banned books to those who want to read them, but I hope it also just keeps stimulating more,” said English “I do want to stir things up a little bit just to have some more discussion.”

English started the project with $100,000 and the first shipment of books went out last week. Banned Books USA works in partnership with the website Bookshop.org and the nonprofit Electric Literature. One dollar from every order will be donated to theFlorida Freedom to Read Project, a parent-led group fighting back against book bans in schools across the state.

“They’re in line with our mission because, one, they're getting books into the hands of kids and educators, which is exactly what we want to happen,” said Raegan Miller of Florida Freedom to Read. “And then they're supporting our work so that we can raise more awareness, which will obviously help get more people inspired to speak out and put a little pressure on our districts to say, ‘Hey, Moms for Liberty might be the loud ones, but we're here and we know what's going on.’”

RELATED: U.S. book bans are taking a toll on a beloved tradition: Scholastic Book Fairs

Miller joined Florida Freedom to Read in May 2022 at its inception. As a mom of a 9th grader and 6th grader, she was upset when two books were quietly removed from her school district in Pinellas County. The reason for their removal was “ridiculous,” she said.

“They were ‘Milo Imagines the World’ and ‘Ambitious Girl,’” said Miller. “There was a cartoon drawing of two brides in one of the books. In another, there was a drawing where in the crowd someone was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘BLM.’ That’s how I really got more intimately involved.”

Florida Freedom to Read, which has members across the state, works to raise awareness and keep parents and citizens informed about book challenges and more. According to their website, their mission is TO keep public school districts “student-centered, especially as they face the ‘Parents’ Rights’ movement.”

“We are not gatekeepers of the information,” added Miller. “We get it, and we are disseminating it. It’s very difficult for parents to be able to pay attention to exactly what's going on. So that's why we try to be everywhere and as many places as we can.”

Miller said she hopes the group grows to every county in the state.

“We thought we'll protect our own kids and our own districts,” Miller said of the early inception of Florida Freedom to Read. “But we look at it now, it's like, we've got to protect all the kids in Florida because it's not fair. And even sometimes we'll have people tell us, ‘Oh, you can write off that district. It's a red district. And that's a district we're going to work twice as hard in because those kids deserve to access information as well.”

RELATED: Some Escambia high school libraries are closed as district works to review titles

People from a few other states — “states you would expect,” said Miller — have reached out to get advice on starting a similar group in their own area.

There is representation in Escambia County. Linda Fussell has been a vocal opponent of banning books in local schools and is part of Florida Freedom to Read. She’ll be holding a presentation with the League of Women Voters Pensacola Bay Area on Saturday morning.

Book bans are “undemocratic and unpatriotic,” said Fussell.

“I’m incensed that it has caught on,” she said. “This is a community issue where people are trying to dictate what kids will be able to access to read based on their particular viewpoint or their particular worldview. Society doesn’t work that way.”

Outside of Banned Books USA, local organizations have been giving away banned books. Open Books and InWeekly raised over $3,000 to give away banned books this past summer. Open Books Bookstore also has limited copies of banned books available for free. This weekend, the Pensacola Little Theatre will also be distributing copies of “And Tango Makes Three,” which was banned in Escambia County School District elementary schools, to audiences of “Alabama Story.” The play is inspired by the true story of a children’s book being banned in 1959.

“We are helping to fight back censorship,” said Fussell. “To take away the opportunity for a child to read something they don’t know about is not a good way to educate the populace.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.