Pinellas schools remove book by prize-winning author Toni Morrison

Pinellas County high school students no longer will have access to Toni Morrison’s first book “The Bluest Eye” in their classrooms or libraries.

School district officials announced Tuesday that they had removed the title from circulation after a review prompted by the complaint of a parent at Palm Harbor University High.

“We are erring on the side of caution, per the language of (new state) training,” chief academic officer Dan Evans told school board members during a discussion on policies related to library book selection and controversial material challenges.

The training, approved by the State Board of Education last week as part of a new state law, calls on schools to vet all library books, including in classrooms, for topics “harmful to minors.” It encouraged officials to “err on the side of caution,” further recommending that they consider what other districts are doing and to look at crowd-sourced materials along with peer reviews.

Some districts such as Manatee County have closed off classroom libraries to children while they vet titles. Others such as Clay County have taken titles out of circulation pending formal reviews, after receiving challenges from parents or community members.

Evans told the school board that administrators have a “right and obligation” to review materials on a regular basis, with or without formal complaints. They have done so on several occasions, he said, noting as an example a summertime initiative to consider the appropriateness of nearly 100 books.

That effort led to the removal of 10 books from student access.

In “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison’s debut novel published in 1970, the author tells the story of an African American girl who grew up after the Great Depression. On the book’s 50th anniversary in 2020, the New Yorker said the work “cut a new path through the American literary landscape by placing young Black girls at the center of the story.”

It was part of a body of work that won Morrison the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, adding to dozens of other awards, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “Beloved.”

“The Bluest Eye” has been removed from shelves in many communities over the years and is perennially listed by the American Library Association as one of the 100 most banned and challenged books.

Pinellas school officials looked at “The Bluest Eye” after one parent, Michelle Stille, objected to it as a reading in her child’s advanced literature course at Palm Harbor.

In a video posted on YouTube, Stille, who teaches at a private Christian school, said she was “shocked any adult would expose 15-year-olds to such explicit descriptions of illegal activities.” In emails to board members, she sent pages that included descriptions of sexual activities including pedophilia.

She said in the video she intended to pull out any of her seven children who remain in public schools, calling them “Marxist indoctrination camps.”

Evans told the school board that, after Stille complained about the book, the principal met with the teacher and media specialist to discuss the content. He said they considered the book in its entirety, including its overall literary value. The book was not part of the district curriculum.

The principal decided to remove the book from the class, despite having earlier warned parents about the sensitive nature of the book and offering an alternate book for the assignment. After the principal consulted with the district, district leaders asked all schools to remove the book, Evans said.

The news was greeted with praise from district critics such as conservative blogger David Happe, who thanked the board for listening to the public. Others blasted the move, contending the state’s laws on parental rights have been weaponized against certain groups.

“Another parent should not be able to step on my parental rights,” parent Barbara Mellen told the board. “Please stop the removal of materials from schools.”

As they discussed the policies on books and controversial materials, which were approved, some board members signaled their discomfort, saying the state had placed them in a difficult position. Board member Caprice Edmond lamented that the concepts the state put forth for judging materials are vague and subject to interpretation, creating troubles for educators.

Until the state changes the law, board chairperson Lisa Cane said, “we’re going to continue to struggle with these types of decisions.”

Board member Stephanie Meyer said she did not see a problem with districts implementing the law. Students are minors, she said, and the schools must protect them from inappropriate materials.

Books are not banned, she added, just not available in schools.

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.