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Hillsborough votes to keep a widely banned book in high school

Books sit on a bookshelf in a University of South Florida library
Victoria Crosdale
The review committee at Hillsborough County Public Schools voted to keep the novel "Identical" by Ellen Hopkins in the Newsome High School library.

The novel "Identical" by Ellen Hopkins has been banned 22 times in U.S. school districts. Hillsborough's decision to keep the book bucks that.

The review committee at Hillsborough County Public Schools voted to keep the novel "Identical" by Ellen Hopkins in the Newsome High School library.

The 7-1 vote reaffirms the decision made by the school-level committee last fall. It's unclear whether the decision will be appealed again, in which case the school board will review the book.

Hillsborough's book challenge policy states that decisions apply only to the school where the book was challenged. Copies of “Identical” are available at other high schools and can be challenged there separately as well.

"Identical" tells the story of twin high school-aged girls who come to terms with their abusive father. The novel has been banned 22 times across the U.S., including in seven Florida school districts.

The book was removed in Hernando County schools and age-restricted in Pinellas and Manatee County schools, according to tracking done by the Florida Freedom to Read Project. The tracker shows that the novel was challenged, but retained in Polk County in September.

Author Ellen Hopkins is one of the most banned authors in the U.S., according to PEN America, an advocacy group that tracks censorship in schools. She’s written multiple young adult novels that have been challenged in school libraries. Her novel, "Tricks," which chronicles the story of five troubled teenagers, topped the banned books list in the 2022-23 school year.

During the review session, committee members noted that some of the content in “Identical” was “uncomfortable to read” and “shocking,” but that some students may relate to themes discussed in the book.

Newsome High School student Morgan Nickerson said she believed the story resonates with some of her classmates and that the story was “about survivorship.”

“Those who say this book is too deep for students — they’re not looking at it as a whole,” said Nickerson.

Others brought up the concern that the content may not be appropriate for freshman or sophomore grades. In order to keep the book in the school library, the group has to agree it’s appropriate for all high school ages.

Kathryn Branham, coordinator of school counseling services, acknowledged content in the book can be a “hit to the system” for some students, but that others have lived experiences reflected in the novel.

“I’ve seen students with these issues, so it is identifiable within this age range,” said Branham.

To remove a book from its shelf, reviewers must determine if the content violates rules outlined in state law. The criteria are: if the book is pornographic, depicts sexual conduct as defined in state law, is not suited to students needs or is not age-appropriate.

The law HB1069, which enhanced the book challenge process, was passed last year and caused confusion between districts that struggled to interpret the bill’s language.

The state’s guidance to “err on the side of caution” has resulted in some districts pulling hundreds of books off their shelves. It’s also created a patchwork across the state of what materials are deemed appropriate for K-12 students.

Florida now leads the nation in school book bans, surpassing Texas last school year.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.