Australian author Mem Fox’s 1988 picture book Guess What?, illustrated by Vivienne Goodman, has been banned in Duval County, Florida over allegations of “pornography”. Why? Because one illustration depicts the main character, “old witch” Daisy O'Grady, taking a bath.
The picture book, which invites children to guess Daisy’s witchy identity through a series of clues, joins a plethora of titles – mostly with LGBTQIA+ or culturally diverse themes – that have been removed from school libraries in the state.
Fox is one of Australia’s most beloved authors: her first book, Possum Magic, is one of Australia’s bestselling ever children’s books, with sales of over four million (and counting). Her agent told the Guardian, “We have nothing to say on this issue. Duval County is a county of 997,000 people in Florida. It is not important.”
The banning comes on the heels of new legislation, enacted in 2022, that has seen many Florida schools strip their library shelves and cover up books in classroom libraries for fear of breaching the law – and risking a prison sentence.
Under Section 847.012 of the Florida statutes, materials prohibited in schools include:
Any picture […] or visual representation of a person or a portion of a human body which depicts nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse and which is harmful to minors.
Failure to comply is a third-degree felony, which can carry a prison sentence of up to five years.
The full criteria can be found in the department’s online training slideshow but, simply put, all books must be age appropriate and “free of pornography”. However, what constitutes both “appropriate” and “pornography” – and how this is decided – remains unclear.
Bodies are not ‘inherently sexual’
So how exactly does Guess What? fit these parameters?
In one illustration, Daisy sits across a double bowl sink (that she is comically too big to fit in) wearing a scuba mask. The bowls are filled with water, and she sits sideways in one with her feet splashing in the other. She is nude, but not exposed. Limbs cover her breasts and genitalia. The room is busy and pleasantly chaotic: soap on the floor, a frog on a towel, fish pegged to the clothesline that hangs over the sink.
It’s far from a sexual image. Unless you’re into that sort of thing. In which case, we are no longer talking about the “prevailing standards in the adult community”, but rather a personal sexual preference or “kink” (a word I never thought I would write in relation to a Mem Fox picture book).
What the issue comes down to is a blatant conflation between nudity and sexuality. The statute’s wording is highly problematic: nudity in and of itself is not a sexual act. Bathing is not a sexual act. It’s basic hygiene. By banning books with any form of nudity in a bid to rid school libraries of “pornographic content”, the statute situates all nudity as a form of pornography.
The irony, of course, is that by trying to shelter children from sex – and from material that “sexualises students” – the law itself is sexualising children’s bodies. By implying that nudity in a non-sexual context is “pornographic”, the Florida government and Department of Education is teaching children that their bodies are inherently sexual.
Australian attempted book bans haven’t worked
In some ways, this ban could be considered as an example of differing social standards between Australia and the United States. Earlier this year, Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer was pulled from a Queensland library after complaints by a conservative activist.
In the US, Gender Queer was 2021’s “most banned book in the country” and topped the American Library Association’s “Most Challenged” list in 2022 for “sexually explicit” content. However, after review here by the Australian Classification Board, the book was given an “unrestricted classification” and consumer advice that it is “not recommended for readers under 15 years”.
Australian Classification Board director Fiona Jolly said of Gender Queer:
The treatment of sex and nudity is […] not high in impact and is not exploitative, offensive, gratuitous or very detailed. Given the [book’s] literary, artistic and educational merits, the Board does not consider that the publication contains material that offends a reasonable adult to the extent that it should be restricted.
Book banning as a presidential tactic
The surge of book banning in Florida appears to be political. As The New Yorker has noted, the Florida law changes – and subsequent mass book removals in schools – have come in the wake of Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s bid for the US presidency.
DeSantis, a highly conservative politician, is campaigning against “pornographic and inappropriate materials that have been snuck into [Florida] classrooms and libraries to sexualize our students”. This crusade has given him considerable media coverage, as well as leverage among conservative voters.
The banning of Guess What? is part of a wider issue that affects the entire state of Florida. In order to comply with government requirements spearheaded by DeSantis, the Florida Department of Education has put together strict, somewhat “confusing” criteria for book selection that all schools must follow.
Prison for violating book removal law
Of course, Guess What? – and countless other banned books – do not actually fit the requirements for removal, but they are removed regardless. This is because the law is vague and the penalty for violating it – a potential prison sentence – is severe.
The Department of Education in Florid has instructed schools to “err on the side of caution” when choosing and allowing books.
Understandably, the ambiguity over what is and isn’t okay has led to mass book removals across Florida schools.
The restrictions in Florida are part of a “deeply undemocratic” book ban movement sweeping the US.
According to a 2022 study by PEN America, 32 states in the US have book bans in place in school libraries. This has culminated (so far) in 1,648 titles being removed across 5,049 schools, limiting access to books for nearly four million students.
Thankfully, Australia’s reading culture is very different, as the unsuccessful attempt to ban Gender Queer demonstrates.
But Guess What? is just one drop in an ocean of book censorship in America: one that’s seeing more and more schools, districts and states in the US removing and banning books. This is not an isolated problem, but one that is growing exponentially.
Which books will be next?
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Sarah Mokrzycki, Victoria University.
Sarah Mokrzycki does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.