(NEW YORK)—In a letter sent to Duval County Public Schools in Florida, PEN America and We Need Diverse Books, along with 70 authors, questioned the removal of 176 book titles from classroom libraries in January 2022 for “review.” The decision to pull the Essential Voices Collection has kept books out of over 100 elementary schools, holding copies in storage for ten months with little indication of when they might return to classrooms. The letter was sent ahead of tonight’s school board meeting where the topic was expected to be discussed.

PEN America reported the removal of the books in Duval County as a ban in the report released this past September, Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools. Kasey Meehan, PEN America’s Freedom to Read program director, said  “the report highlights coordinated efforts to censor materials in public K12 schools and libraries and deprive students of their right to read, which is exactly what we’re seeing in Duval County.” The report shows that from July 2021 to June 2022, 138 school districts in 32 states banned 1,648 unique book titles; the bans occurred in 5,049 schools representing 4 million students.

Ellen Oh, co-founder and CEO of We Need Diverse Books, is attending tonight’s meeting with authors and co-signers Linda Sue Park and Ami Polonsky. All three authors are calling on the school board members to return the Essential Voices Collection and release a transparent process of review. The collection, which includes books at several grade levels, promotes diversity and inclusion and features titles by award-winning authors including Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, When Aidan Became A Brother by Kyle Lukoff, and Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o.

Park, a Newbery Award-winning author, said: “I came to Duval County because I believe in the rights of all kids and families to have the widest possible variety of books to choose from, and the freedom to choose them–because books can change and even save lives.”

Polonsky, an author and a middle school English teacher, made the trip to Duval County to advocate for the 176 titles to be returned to shelves, particularly books with LGBTQ stories. “None of the LGBTQ-themed books from the Essential Voices Collection have been placed in classroom libraries and, because of this, LGBTQ children in Duval County are being denied the right to see themselves reflected in books,” said Polonsky. “I came to Jacksonville to request that these books be placed where they belong, in classroom libraries, so that all children can see their identities, their peers’ identities, and their families’ identities in the books that they read.”

The full text of the letter, with authors and illustrators who signed it, is below.

December 6, 2022

Dear Chairperson Dr. Coker, Vice Chairperson Pearson, and Duval County School Board members:

PEN America and We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) are writing to you on behalf of the undersigned authors and illustrators who have been affected by the decision to place their books, all part of the Essential Voices Classroom Libraries Collection, in storage this year. 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.

The Essential Voices Classroom Libraries Collection, collated by Perfection Learning, “features characters representing a variety of ethnicities, religious affiliations, and gender identities.” The Collection is designed to stock classroom libraries with diverse and inclusive books, so that “Students will see themselves in what they read, developing an understanding and appreciation of themselves as well as others around them.”

The circumstances around the decision to remove this Collection is opaque, including which books triggered this delay and extra review, and what process was followed to make the decision to shelve all the books in the Collection entirely. As months pass where this collection is not on shelves, students lose the opportunity to understand and appreciate themselves and others through books. Below is a sample of the titles included in the Collection:

  • Life of Rosa Parks by Kathleen Connors
  • Sonia Sotomayor by Kathleen Krull
  • Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o
  • Dim Sum for Everyone! by Grace Lin
  • Berenstain Bears and the Big Question by Stan and Jan Berenstain
  • Malala: A Hero for All by Shana Corey
  • Nya’s Long Walk by Linda Sue Park
  • Barbed Wire Baseball: How One Man Brought Hope To The Japanese Internment Camps Of WWII by Marissa Moss
  • Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
  • Thank You, Jackie Robinson by Barbara Cohen
  • I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
  • Chik Chak Shabbat by Mara Rockliff

According to the facts as we understand them:

  • The District placed an order for the Essential Voices Collection in July 2021. It is well-documented that the Collection was purchased in response to low literacy rates and was intended to be used to advance student literacy across the district.
  • The Collection was received in January 2022 and soon after, the books were removed from classroom libraries. Responding to a FOIA request on July 7, 2022, by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, the district explained:

“When the Essential Voices classroom libraries arrived at schools, 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. Schools were notified, via regional superintendents, to remove this collection from classroom libraries until they could be reviewed January 27, 2022. The review process is not complete, and books remain in storage.”

  • Since then, the District has publicly communicated that none of the books were challenged by members of the community, and that the books are undergoing an independent review. There has been no communication of a timeline for this review.

PEN America, We Need Diverse Books, and the undersigned authors and illustrators are concerned at the way the Collection, and all the books it contains, was summarily consigned to storage. Libraries, schools, and districts have materials challenge policies precisely for this purpose: to guard against the ad hoc removals of books. Iin removing the Essential Voices whole cloth into storage, the District appears not to have followed any best practice guidelines nor adhered to a process for review.

It has been ten months since these books were removed. The many authors and creative workers who have signed onto this statement are shocked and alarmed to learn of their books lingering in storage under these circumstances. They are dismayed that books that fill historic gaps in representation appear to have been cast aside.

As stated in Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal essay, “Mirrors Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” published in 1990: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” 

Furthermore, when students lose the literature that acts as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors into the larger human experience, we lose the opportunity to teach them the meaning of true empathy.

PEN America, We Need Diverse Books, and the co-signed authors and illustrators understand the tremendous pressure that has been placed on school districts across the country to exercise new scrutiny of the books arriving in schools. But in doing so, there must be transparent processes and clear guidelines, and these must be followed consistently. For this reason, we hope the District can clarify how these books ended up in storage– in an act that is tantamount to censorship– describe the process being utilized to evaluate the Collection, and imminently return the books to their shelves. .


PEN America

We Need Diverse Books

& Co-Signed Authors and Illustrators:

Alma Flor Ada

Ruth Behar

Mike Berenstain

Lauren Simkin Berke

Phil Bildner

Ashley Herring Blake

Joseph Bruchac

Angela Cervantes

Raul Colon

Art Coulson

Junot Díaz

Firoozeh Dumas

Alice Faye Duncan

Margarita Engle

Reem Faruqi

Dani Gabriel

Katrina Goldsaito

Xelena Gonzalez

Nikki Grimes

Jessica Herthel

Veera Hiranandani

Minfong Ho

Beverly Vaughn Hock

Deborah Hopkinson

Kelly Jones

Christy Jordan-Fenton

Jacqueline Jules

Hena Kahn

Kirby Larson

Dana Alison Levy

Grace Lin

Robert Liu-Trujillo

Cynthia Lord

Natalie Dias Lorenzi

Jessica Love

Kyle Lukoff

Kyo Maclear

Rafe Martin

Juana Medina

Marissa Moss

Jerdine Nolen

Naomi Shihab Nye

Sara O’Leary

Sara Palacios

Linda Sue Park

Mitali Perkins

Gayle Pitman

Ami Polonsky

Tim Probert

Doreen Rappaport

Jama Kim Rattigan

Lynne Rickards

Lisa Robinson

Darcy Rosenblatt

Aida Salazar

Rob Sanders

Yuko Shimizu

Holly Goldberg Sloan

Chris Soentpiet

Traci Sorell

Rebecca Stead

Javaka Steptoe

Don Tate

Matt Tavares

Pamela S. Turner

Deb Vanasse

Karen Lynn Williams

Jonah Winter


Farhana Zia

PEN America is a nonprofit organization standing at the intersection of literature and human

rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057

We Need Diverse Books is a nonprofit organization that strives to create a world in which everyone can find themselves in the pages of a book.