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Pittsburgh author condemns Florida ban on his Roberto Clemente picture book

A detail of the cover of

 Provided / Jonah Winter

A detail of the cover of "Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates"

As a Hall of Fame athlete, pioneering Latino player, and humanitarian, Roberto Clemente is one of Pittsburgh’s biggest sports heroes, and remains an icon in the Caribbean community. But a Pittsburgh author’s picture-book telling Clemente’s story has set off alarms in at least one Florida school district. And it’s far from the only book to do so.

Jonah Winter wrote “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” partly because of his childhood admiration of Clemente’s on-field prowess in the 1960s and ’70s. The 2005 book, with illustrations by Raúl Colón, also depicts Clemente’s humanitarian efforts, including the 1972 mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua that ended in a fatal plane crash.

In December, Winter received notice from writers’ advocacy group PEN America that “Clemente” was among 176 titles that had been removed from shelves in Duval County, Fla., in response to new state laws restricting the content of books in schools.

Duval County includes Jacksonville, and the district calls itself “the 20th largest school district in the nation.” Many of the removed titles dealt with gender, sexuality, or racism. While Winter’s book focuses on Clemente’s childhood in Puerto Rico, his athletic accomplishments, and his charity work, a couple of pages do note the racism that he faced during his career — mostly from sportswriters, Winter said.

“I couldn’t leave that out of the book,” he said. But he suspects that theme is the reason schoolchildren in Duval can no longer see his work.

School officials have been removing books from Florida schools for more than a year in response to the new laws, according to press reports. A fresh round of scrutiny of the practice arrived in late January, after the State Board of Education decreed that the restrictions apply not only to school libraries, but also to the books teachers stock in their own classrooms. The Washington Post reported that officials in Manatee and Duval counties ordered teachers to either remove the books or cover the volumes on the shelves. Some teachers said that because of the way the laws are written, they fear felony charges if unapproved books are found in their classrooms.

Author Jonah Winter

Criticism of the removals on social media mounted this week after observers pointed out that two of the books were about beloved baseball legends Clemente and Hank Aaron.

Some critics view the laws as expressions of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Presidential ambitions, which lean heavily on culture-war issues. For instance, Florida’s 2022 “Stop WOKE Act” outlaws teaching that someone “must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.

Winter condemned the book bans.

“Children’s books generally right now, it’s a political football, and it’s being used by people in this county in Florida to score political points, and it has nothing to do with children I think, ultimately,” he said.

“I feel very bad for the children in these counties that they’re victims of this nonsense, and they’re being deprived of the opportunities to read certain books that would have important information in them,” he added.

A statement on the Duval County public schools website said officials are reviewing the removed titles to determine which can be returned to bookshelves.

To date, Winter has published more than 40 picture books, including biographies of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Elvis Presley, Barack Obama, Gertrude Stein, Frida Kahlo, labor activist Mother Jones, and jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. And he is no stranger to seeing his work challenged, whether in Florida or in Pennsylvania.

In 2016, he said, two schools in Miami barred him from entering to discuss “Hillary,” his picture-book bio of Hillary Clinton. More recently, his 2009 book on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was one of the books and other materials banned by a high school in York County, Pa., until student protests reversed the decision last year.

He said another irony is that today’s publishing industry would prevent him from even writing the Clemente book. That’s not because of its subject matter or discussions of racism, but, rather, because publishers want stories written by members of the subjects’ own culture, said Winter, who is white.

These days, Winter said, he is more likely to write about animals, as in his 2021 book, “The Little Owl & The Big Tree.”

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