Jewish children’s book returns to Florida’s shelves after long ‘review’

Jewish children’s book returns to Florida’s shelves after long ‘review’

Mara Rockliff’s “Chik Chak Shabbat” has become a standard for Jewish children since its 2014 publication. The picture book intended for young readers tells a whimsical story about a group of diverse neighbors who help an observant Jewish woman make her cholent — a stew traditionally served on the Sabbath — when they realize she doesn’t feel well enough to cook it herself.

So why did a school district in Jacksonville, Florida, purchase copies of the book only to keep it from students for 15 months?

That’s what happened at Duval County Public Schools. The district initially ordered Rockliff’s book for its students in July 2021 as part of a larger diversity-themed collection of books called “Essential Voices,” which is offered to educators by Iowa-based educational company Perfection Learning.

The books were delivered last winter, but remained “under review” as of September when the literary free-speech activist group PEN America published a report on banned books in the United States. PEN’s report alleged Duval County had “effectively banned” Roclkiff’s and other books.

One month later, the district released many of them, including “Chik Chak Shabbat,” to students. At least one book with Jewish themes, “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher” by Jewish author Dana Alison Levy, remains “under review.”

Other Jewish-themed books in the collection include Ruth Behar’s “Lucky Broken Girl,” a coming-of-age autobiographical novel about a Cuban Jewish girl who experiences a car accident while adapting to her new life in New York; that book was also returned to Duval County students in October, Pierce said.

“As an author and a cultural anthropologist, I think young readers should have the freedom to read widely about the human condition to develop empathy and compassion and tolerance,” Behar, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan who also signed the petition circulated by PEN America and We Need Diverse Books, told JTA. She added that she has not heard of any schools or individuals objecting to the book’s content.

The Essential Voices collection also includes a book by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o; an entry from the “Berenstain Bears” series; books about Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson; and a book supporting interfaith dialogue called “Celebrating Different Beliefs.”

The district’s reasoning for its review process was insufficient in the eyes of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, an activist group in the state that pushes for increased student access to books. The group has filed Freedom Of Information Act requests to get the district to disclose its reasoning for reviewing the books.

“We argue there was never a reason to remove the entire collection of books,” the group’s founders told JTA. “No one in the community complained about what their child was reading in their K-5 classroom.

“If there were only a few titles of concern because they were popping up on challenge lists in the state, they could have reduced the amount of time needed to complete a thorough review by reviewing only those titles while the entire collection remained in the classrooms. Instead, they pulled the entire collection and questioned the professional expertise of those that created it.”