Florida rejects books on voting, Tuskegee airmen for museum’s storytime – Orlando Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Department of State tossed out the entire slate of books recommended by the civil-rights Grove Museum for the first six months of its 2024 monthly storytime program for young children, including books on voting rights and Black history.

Originally submitted in October, the books were deemed not appropriate for the time of year they were being offered, they were not age-appropriate or not on the state Department of Education’s pre-approved reading list.

Among the books rejected was “VOTE!” by Eileen Christelow, scheduled for this month. The book was on the state’s pre-approved list and rated for first- through fourth-graders.

“You’re joking,” Christelow said from her home in Vermont. “I’m just speechless. I don’t know what to say.”

Other rejected books included “Wind Flyers” by Amanda Johnson, for February’s Black History Month, about Florida’s connection to the Tuskegee Airmen, and “Drum Dream Girl,” by Margarita Engle for Women’s History Month in March. It’s a poem inspired by a girl of Chinese, African and Cuban heritage who broke Cuba’s taboo against female drummers.

“No books were blocked; only moved to align with more relevant timing,” said Mark Ard, external affairs director for the Department of State, which oversees the state’s museums and historical programs as well as elections and corporations.

But the books don’t appear on any program calendar for the Grove House; in fact, the decision to reject the books has left storytime in limbo with no books approved except for one in February. Grove Museum staff wouldn’t answer questions from the Orlando Sentinel, referring all inquiries to Ard as instructed.

Ard called the situation a big misunderstanding, but couldn’t say when the books would be rescheduled, nor would he say who ultimately decided to reject the books. He said it came about as a result of a group discussion where he was present.

“Approval of events is filtered for marketability, timing, conflicting external dates, etc.,” Ard said. “This is not a new process and is not unique to The Grove Museum.”

He refused to say if Secretary of State Cord Byrd, formerly a Republican lawmaker and ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was involved in the decision.

“VOTE!” was resubmitted by itself in December for January storytime, but once again it was turned down, Ard said, because it was deemed more topical for another month.

When pushed to explain when would be a good time to discuss voter registration and elections in Florida, Ard switched gears, saying the book was rated for first through fourth graders.

“Storytime programs held during school hours should be geared toward much younger children,” Ard also said, noting the age range for storytime was 3 to 8.

The Grove submitted a book for January in place of “VOTE!”  But the event was canceled “out of concern for staff and visitor safety,” because it occurred the day after a January 9 storm hit Tallahassee with high winds, Ard said.

Christelow said she was familiar with the actions by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to curtail what could be taught about Black history in public schools, book-banning efforts by Moms for Liberty and voter suppression efforts.

“What are they afraid of?” she asked.

Her brightly illustrated picture book, published in 2008, is the story of a Black woman, Chris Smith, running for town mayor against a white man.

The children's book "VOTE!" was among those tossed out by the Florida Department of State that were recommended by the Grove Museum in Tallahassee for the first six months of its 2024 monthly Storytime program. (Copyright (c) 2004 by Eileen Christelow, courtesy of Clarion Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
The children’s book “VOTE!” was among those tossed out by the Florida Department of State that were recommended by the Grove Museum in Tallahassee for the first six months of its 2024 monthly storytime program. (Copyright (c) 2004 by Eileen Christelow, courtesy of Clarion Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

It includes passages about the long history of getting all people to vote regardless of sex and skin color. “When this country started, only white men who owned property could vote,” the book says.

It also said that since the Constitution didn’t spell out who could vote, it left it to the states to determine who could vote. “That was a problem. The states made unfair rules about who could vote.”

Christelow said she was evenhanded, depicting men and women of all colors who couldn’t vote.

“The book has nothing to do with race,” she said, and choosing a Black woman as her main character was arbitrary.

The Grove Museum, formerly the home of Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, is dedicated to teaching about civil rights in Florida, and about the relationship between Collins and the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., a champion for voting rights.

Ard said it was recommended that the Grove schedule Christelow’s book for a month more appropriate to the subject of elections and voting registration, during Florida’s election cycle.

Voter registration and preparing for elections is a year-round operation. And when it was pointed out that two presidential primaries were scheduled for January, one in Iowa and the other in New Hampshire, Ard said, “Secretary of State Cord Byrd is the Secretary of State for Florida – not Iowa or New Hampshire.”

Florida’s presidential primary is March 19, and primary and general elections are later in the year.

January also is the month that federal and state governments celebrate the birthday of King, who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Florida was the third-to-last state to adopt MLK Day as a holiday.

Far from receiving negative blowback for her book, Christelow has seen it have a positive impact at events where she’s spoken.

“One woman stood up and said she had never voted before reading this book, and now was going to vote,” Christelow said.

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