By Andrew Lapin
March 14, 2023 (JTA)
A Holocaust-themed novel by bestselling author Jodi Picoult was among dozens of books removed from a South Florida school district library’s circulation last month, in the latest example of books with Jewish themes getting swept up amid a larger conservative-led effort to police potentially inappropriate material in classrooms.
“The Storyteller” was removed from the library last month at a high school in Martin County, a southeast Florida district, owing to a parental complaint. According to a list of removed books published by local media. the novel was among several others by Picoult that were taken off the shelves. Other removed books by Jewish authors include the coming-of-age novel “Forever,” by Judy Blume, and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is about a boy whose father was killed on 9/11.
Nationwide, book removal campaigns have sought to purge schools and public libraries of what opponents have deemed “critical race theory,” “pornography” and “gender ideology.” Notable instances of Holocaust-themed books getting ensnared in such efforts include Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” being removed from a Tennessee middle school curriculum; a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary being briefly removed from a Texas district; and several young-reader histories about the Holocaust also being briefly removed from a Missouri district.
Florida in particular has required additional scrutiny of the books that are available to schoolchildren. While Gov. Ron DeSantis has denied that the state is banning books, activists say his “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” encourage parents and educators to take license in purging schools of material that could carry a hint of impropriety. Some districts have covered or removed their classroom libraries entirely to comply with the law, while other Florida districts have removed picture books that trigger concern, including one about Shabbat that was part of a diversity package and another about a Jewish family with two dads.
Blume’s and Foer’s books have been frequent targets of other school bans and removals, as have many other books on Martin County’s list — including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But Picoult, who grew up in a secular Jewish household, told the Washington Post that this was the first time, to her knowledge, that “The Storyteller” has been targeted. She said the removal was “shocking, as it is about the Holocaust.”
In an opinion piece for The Daily Beast following the initial publication of this article, Picoult elaborated, writing, “There was a strange irony that a parent wanted this particular book removed, because it felt a bit like history repeating itself.” The author is co-writing a new musical based on Markus Zusak’s young-adult novel “The Book Thief,” which is also set in Nazi Germany, and said she had been “watching a book burning” as part of the British production’s rehearsals when she heard the news about the latest round of her book bans.
First published in 2013, “The Storyteller” follows the Jewish granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor who learns that her neighbor is a former Nazi officer who served in concentration camps. Her neighbor also asks her to help him commit suicide.
The Post reported that most of the Florida district’s book complaints originated from one parent: the head of the local chapter of the conservative group Moms For Liberty.
“At this point, we believe we have challenged the most obscene and age inappropriate books,” the parent, Julie Marshall, told the Post.
Marshall did not immediately respond to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for comment on why she sought to remove “The Storyteller,” but she previously told the school board that the vast majority of her challenges were based on what she deemed sexually explicit content. The book contains several sexually graphic scenes, including depictions of sexual assault by Nazi guards.
Photo Caption: Jodi Picoult and her daughter Samantha Van Leer pose at the opening night of the musical “Between The Lines,” July 11, 2022 in New York City. (Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)