Pressed by Moms for Liberty, Florida school district adds clothing to illustrations in classic children's books
Since its initial publication in 1970, millions of children have read In The Night Kitchen, the classic picture book by celebrated author Maurice Sendak. The book is about a young boy who has a surreal dream about baking a cake that needs to be finished by morning. It was named a Caldecott Honor Book, one of the most prestigious awards in children's literature.
At least two copies of In The Night Kitchen are available in elementary school libraries in Indian River County, Florida. This concerned Jennifer Pippin, the chair of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, because the main character, Mickey, is sometimes depicted without clothes. In an interview, Pippin told Popular Information that she believes the book may be "harmful to minors." She was worried that if a "5-year-old picks up this book and has never seen a picture of a penis… [t]he parent wouldn’t be able to discuss this with the child." This is an example of one of the offending images:
Pippin submitted formal challenges to the Indian River County School District seeking the removal of In The Night Kitchen, which she calls "pornographic." Pippin challenged other books with drawings of figures without clothes, including Unicorns Are The Worst, a book about a goblin complaining about how much people like unicorns. The concern about Unicorns Are The Worst is this picture of a goblin's butt:
Following Pippin's challenges, which occurred in November and December of 2023, the books were removed from the library shelves.
Pippin told Popular Information that, after filing the challenges, she had a meeting with Indian River County Superintendent David Moore and other school officials concerning the books. At the meeting, one of the officials suggested the school district "draw clothes on them to cover the nudity." Pippin said that she "would be absolutely fine with that" because she challenged the books "for nudity." Now, in the copies of In The Night Kitchen in Indian River County schools, Mickey is wearing "little shorts."
Pippin provided Popular Information with a photo of the altered image from In The Night Kitchen. Popular Information obtained a photo of the altered image from Unicorns Are The Worst from a source at a Indian River County elementary school. These are the censored versions of the two images:
In other cases, the Indian River County librarians were more creative. Another book Pippin sought to remove was Draw Me A Star by Eric Carle, who is best known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Pippin was concerned about this image of "two adults that were naked." She said that her concerns were addressed when the district librarians drew "board shorts on the man" and "put the girl in a bikini."
Also targeted was the book No, David! because it included this image.
Once these images were altered, the books were returned to the shelves in the second week of January 2024.
Pippin said she challenged these books, in part, because she believed the unaltered books violated two Florida statutes. The first is Florida's obscenity law, which prohibits distributing to minors "any picture…which depicts nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse and which is harmful to minors." Pippin claims the law prohibits all nudity in school library books. But the law actually only prohibits nudity, which is also "harmful to minors." The term "harmful to minors" has a specific legal meaning. It only applies to content that appeals primarily to "prurient, shameful, or morbid interests," is "patently offensive," and is without "serious literary [or] artistic…merit" for minors. It's hard to argue In The Night Kitchen or the other books challenged by Pippin meet this standard.
Pippin claims the unaltered version of In The Night Kitchen also violates a new law, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis (R) in 2023, HB 1069. That law gives residents the right to demand the removal of any library book that "depicts or describes sexual conduct," as defined under Florida law, whether or not the book is pornographic. In The Night Kitchen and the other books challenged by Pippin do not depict or describe sexual conduct.
The alterations of the books in Indian River County were first flagged by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which confirmed the school district's actions through a public records request.
David Flynt, the father of students in Indian River County schools, told Popular Information that he objected to Moms for Liberty's efforts. Flynt questioned why Moms for Liberty was "sexualizing" an image "of a goblin's bare backside." The image "was not [included] to cause arousal, and was of a fictional character," Flynt noted. He said that it was part of a pattern of censorship that was ultimately harmful to students. Flynt cited Pippin's recent challenge of Sofia Valdez, Future Prez, the story of a young girl who seeks to improve her neighborhood. The basis of the challenge was that the main character's grandfather is depicted wearing a pin in support of LGBTQ rights. This is the image that prompted the objection, with the pin circled in red:
That book has now been removed from the shelves of Indian River County schools pending review. In her challenge form, Pippin indicated that she had not read the book.
Stephana Ferrell of the Florida Freedom to Read Project said that Moms for Liberty pushed the district to “deface an illustrator’s work to suit their sensibilities.” She said the group “regularly misrepresents the literary works of award-winning authors as pornography, and now silly, naked goblin butts.”
“[C]overing up an image, erasing a line, or pulling out a page is still suppression and robs the reader of the author's full literary expressions,” Kasey Meehan, Program Director with the non-profit PEN America, said.
Pippin rejected these criticisms, saying that “covering up genitalia” was legally required and was not “defying the author's work.”
Moms for Liberty's other work in Indian River County
In August 2023, Indian River County’s Moms for Liberty succeeded in removing 35 books from school libraries after nearly 50 members read aloud explicit passages at a school board meeting. Many of these speakers were cut off by School Board Vice Chair Peggy Jones. In some cases, Jones requested that the speaker provide a content warning, citing concerns that there may be young children watching the meeting remotely with their parents.
According to Pippin, this move was a deliberate attempt to circumvent the district’s book review policies. Previously, in 2022, only “five of the 156 books challenged by the Moms for Liberty chapter were removed by the School Board.” But, in July 2023, a new law went into effect that required books to be removed if a school board member stopped a parent from reading it aloud at a public meeting. As a result, the School Board unanimously voted to remove the books that Jones had interrupted while they were read aloud. Titles removed included Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
“It's just the quickest, fastest way to get these books out of the hands of children," Pippin told TC Palm. The review process, she said, was time-consuming.
Jones, however, said that she received death threats “every 10-15 minutes” after a clip of the board meeting went viral. She wasn’t alone: another School Board member was also receiving threats. Meanwhile, school district staff said they were flooded with “highly volatile and emotional emails” and calls following the meeting. In September 2023, the district announced that an additional 128 titles were removed for review. All of these books have been challenged by Moms for Liberty, TC Palm reports. Pippin has threatened to host “additional staged events if the books remained on the shelves.”