This Bookstore Is Giving Banned Books Back to the Florida Community They Were Removed From

When radical anarchist bookstore Firestorm Books in Asheville, North Carolina was entrusted with 22,500 books removed from the Duval County Public Schools system in Florida, they knew what they had to do: redistribute them back to the community they came from.

The books, which feature diverse characters and stories centering marginalized identities, were removed as a result of the DeSantis-backed push for widespread censorship and book bans. As a result, over 47 titles were flagged and expelled from the district, and over half of those centered LGBTQ+ characters or history. In addition to queer and trans titles, many of these books candidly explored racism, colonialism, and activism/organizing in accessible ways for kids.

According to Firestorm Books, in November 2022, a contractor tasked with the disposal of the more than 20,000 books removed by this ban contacted the bookstore and offered to ship them for free if they had a place to store them. If they couldn’t take them, the books were set to be destroyed.

Yes, that’s right. In case you think “book bans” are somehow a softer policy to “book burning,” make no mistake. Just because you don’t see the flames doesn’t mean there’s no fire. Book bans are every bit as fascist and violent as the historical practice of book burning. And book bans can lead to more hate and violence, normalizing the erasure of queer and trans life. Banning LGBTQ books, for example, further enables homophobic and transphobic hate groups to terrorize children at drag story hours.

But Firestorm, thankfully, took the books. And now they’re giving them back. Through a new project called Banned Books Back!, Firestorm plans to redistribute the confiscated books back to youth in Florida for free. Kids and their allies can fill out an encrypted form to request either picture books for ages 4-8 or chapter books for ages 8-12. Five to six books will be sent per ask, so each kid will receive a range of LGBTQ+ books, and the packages will also include zines and stickers, including one of a possum reading a book that reads TRASH FACISM NOT BOOKS.

The plans are to ship at least 2,000 packages and a total of 10,000 books directly to the youth who need them. The first phase focuses on Florida, but there are plans to open it up to more states facing rampant book banning (as a reminder: book bans happen in all regions). This is, of course, an enormous task, and Firestorm is currently raising $30,000 to cover the costs of the project, most of which will be used for shipping. They still have a long way to go to meet this goal.

The collective behind Firestorm knows this is just one small way to fight book bans. The real fight is much bigger.

“We understand book bans as a symptom of authoritarian power, so it isn’t effective to focus solely on access to individual titles without addressing the underlying power relations,” the collective tells me. “Yes, we want kids in Florida to have these 22,500 books, but we also want to live in a world where there aren’t powerful adults imposing their worldviews through bans, punishment, and policing.”

Proponents of book bans push the false narrative that it’s about protecting children. But we all know they’re solely about protecting a dangerous status quo that does not include all children and in fact hurts a lot of kids and teens. Books don’t make kids unsafe. Guns do. Groups like Moms for Liberty do.

Banned Books Back! was conceived as a project within the overall struggle against fascism, “because we know that these titles were removed from schools by the same insurgent Far Right movement that’s seeking to crush liberatory possibility and erase us from public life,” the collective asserts. Indeed, in November 2023, I wrote about the direct connections between school-based restrictions like sports bans, rules about pronouns, and book bans as part of a larger project to push LGBTQ people out of the public sphere and further into the margins.

According to the Firestorm collective, effective resistance requires organizing our communities against white supremacy, patriarchy, and adult supremacy. That last one is crucial in my opinion since it’s so under-talked about. Current policies in Florida and beyond seek to restrict and control the lives of children in ways that do not actually serve them. Children are targeted specifically because they’re easy targets for authoritarianism and far-right conservatism. The Firestorm collective urges for organizing against all these threats simultaneously. “Yes, that includes handing out free books, but it also includes self-organizing access to abortion services and hormones, defending drag shows, bailing neighbors out of jail, and blocking the expansion of police power,” the collective says.

Banned Books Back! builds on a history of specifically queer activism. The project’s name is a nod to Bash Back!, the late aughts queer and trans liberation movement that started in Chicago and led to the formation of chapters throughout the country committed to political disruption. Bash Back! was an anarchist movement that critiqued the mainstream gay rights movement for prioritizing heteronormative assimilation. Bash Back! imagined more, imagined life where queer and trans people could be truly liberated.

“Like Bash Back!, we believe that the stakes are existential — the end game of the Far Right isn’t to shield their children from our stories, it’s to fully erase us as queer and trans people, along with anyone who doesn’t fit into a white supremacist, Christo-fascist world,” the Firestorm collective says. “And while many adults are still minimizing this as ‘polarized’ discourse, young people are experiencing the real world harms and consequences. We’re working to return these books as an act of solidarity with the kids from whom they were taken; and in doing so, hope to connect with, and contribute to, a broader antifascist struggle.”

Firestorm Books proves bookstores can be a crucial part of this fight. As public spaces with an emphasis on serving the communities they’re in, libraries have long been an important space for providing access to resources, education, and more, but libraries are also beholden to city and state laws, making them susceptible to policies like book bans. We’re seeing some creative, mutual aid-driven efforts and spaces pop up to fill some of these gaps, such as The Rolling Library in NYC, which I’ve written before. Through Banned Books Back!, Firestorm provides another model for what resource redistribution can look like.

In addition to Banned Books Back!, Firestorm regularly collects donated books to give to Asheville Prison Books and distributes books for free in the community with a focus on young readers. The collective tells me they’re passionate about solidarity, direct action, and experimentation. “Banned Books Back! gives us space for all three, and draws on our familiarity with the short-term infrastructural patterns used by mutual aid disaster relief organizers,” the collective says.

If you’re outside of Florida and you’ve been wondering how you can help with what’s happening down here — particularly when it comes to queer and trans youth — consider giving to Banned Books Back! Turn your outrage into action.

It’s impossible for us to imagine the end of book bans without imagining the end of capitalism and the state,” the Firestorm collective says. “Without systemic change, we’ll continue to have a publishing industry that engages in the ‘soft censorship’ of deciding whose stories are worth telling, and we’ll continue to have millions of people in cages where book access is subject to extreme restrictions.”

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 863 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I’ll be donating and also sharing with other people who don’t live in FL but are concerned about what’s happening and looking for ways to get involved.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!