(JTA) — A Florida school district has removed a 2013 picture book about a Jewish child whose fathers are gay from its school libraries, in the latest addition to a national book-banning wave spurred by conservative activism.
“The Purim Superhero,” by Elisabeth Kushner, is one of 58 titles removed in the Walton County School District, located in Florida’s Panhandle. It appears alongside books dealing with race, sexuality and mental health that are more common targets of the book-removal activists who are often affiliated with Moms for Liberty.
The list was revealed at a school board meeting Tuesday night and drew national attention late Wednesday after Daniel Uhlfelder, a Jewish attorney and political activist who lives in the district, published it on Twitter.
Uhlfelder, who burst into public view last year after he wore a Grim Reaper costume on local beaches to protest Florida’s pandemic policies, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “The Purim Superhero” jumped out to him right away.
“We get the PJ Library books,” he said, referring to the Jewish nonprofit and publishing company that sends books to Jewish families at no cost. “I know we have that book.”
“The Purim Superhero” broke new ground in Jewish publishing when it first appeared because the main character has two fathers — something that Kushner said she deliberately did not make the central theme of the story.
Instead of making tension around acceptance the story’s focus, Kushner said she sought to tell a story about a child’s Purim costume anxiety using a family that looked like hers.
“I wanted to write a picture book about a queer family that would function as both a window and a mirror,” she told Kveller last month.
In an interview with JTA, Kushner said she hopes the book is eventually reinstated in the Walton district.
“When people are banning books, they’re implicitly recognizing that books are powerful. They may not like the messages that those books carry with them. It’s sort of a testament to the importance of sharing books and sharing stories,” she said. “I feel bad for the kids who are losing access to a real wealth of reading material and ideas, and I’m not even mostly talking about my book, there’s some really wonderful books on that list.”
The manuscript won a contest for Jewish-themed books with LGBTQ characters sponsored by Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ advocacy group. But PJ Library initially declined to distribute it directly, instead asking families to “opt in” to receive the book out of concern that the presentation of a family with gay parents would alienate some readers. (Thousands requested it, and it quickly sold out.)
This year, PJ Library sent the title to all families with 4-year-olds, reflecting what Keshet CEO Idit Klein told Kveller last month is widespread LGBTQ acceptance in many Jewish communities — even as efforts in the wider world to limit LGBTQ rights grow more robust.
“There’s a reality in which there’s increasing representation and awareness and all sorts of wonderful engagement,” Klein said. “And then there’s a parent of a trans teen in Texas who is now on administrative leave because the state is investigating her and her husband for child abuse.”
In Walton County, the book list was drawn up by local activists associated with Moms for Liberty, a national group that is driving a wave of book removals in districts and cities across the country, according to Uhlfelder. He said the removals had happened quickly and quietly, without public discussion, and that his family was unaware of them despite having children in local schools.
“The manner and speed in which this happened should shock the conscience of anyone who gives a damn about freedom and democracy,” said Uhlfelder, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is running for attorney general in Florida.
He said he saw the inclusion of “The Purim Superhero” as an example of why even people who are not the primary targets of conservatives’ ire should be concerned about censorship efforts.
“Knocking out a book for Jewish children, it’s a bonus for them,” he said. “If you think you’re safe because you’re Jewish, maybe you go to a private school, you’re fooling yourself. You can’t isolate yourself from this hatred and this bigotry.”
The Florida banned-books list is not the first time that Jewish topics have been ensnared in recent conservative-led efforts to limit and shape what is taught in schools. A Tennessee school board earlier this year removed “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s award-winning graphic Holocaust memoir, from its curriculum, ostensibly about concern over language and depictions of nudity. At the same time, educators and lawmakers in Texas, Ohio and Indiana have all drawn criticism for suggesting that teachers should treat the Holocaust like other “divisive concepts” targeted by Republican litigation and present competing perspectives on it.
“The Purim Superhero” is also not the only book by Jewish authors on the Walton County list. The list also includes “Forever” by Judy Blume, a frequent target for censorship because of its portrayal of teen sexuality, and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel about a child whose father dies on 9/11. That book was also on a list of 16 proposed for removal in Polk County, Florida, earlier this year.
The district’s superintendent, A. Russell Hughes, told a local TV news station Tuesday night that he had removed the books out of concern for local parents — and signaled that the 58 removed so far might not be the extent of the removals.
“It was necessary in this moment for me to make that decision and I did it for just [the] welfare of all involved, including our constituents, our teachers, and our students,” Hughes said. “I’ll continue to do those things and perhaps add some.”
Kushner was surprised that her book had made it into Walton County schools in the first place.
“I think that my book is often considered kind of niche,” she said. “I like to think that it has broad appeal and that it has a story and a message that connects with many different kids.”
Jackie Hajdenberg contributed reporting.