Two former Duval County educators have started a new organization focused on distributing multicultural, challenged and banned books.
They call their initiative “Rebel Readers.”
Co-founders Katlin Johnston and Casey Raasio say they started Rebel Readers as a way to counter books being removed from classrooms in response to new Florida laws. Their mission: to stock Free Little Libraries throughout the city with books that have been removed and to create even more free libraries where they can.
“We want (students) to have a passion for reading, but they should have access,” Johnson said. “And parents individually in their homes should have the right to choose what books are welcome. So if we provide them, they can decide whether or not they want to pick them up. And that’s their choice.”
Raasio says the goal of Rebel Readers is to make books accessible to everyone and to encourage the joy of reading.
“It’s important to remember that kids are all unique, and they mature at different rates at different times,” Raasio said. “And that is why it’s so crucial that the parents get the final say in determining what is age appropriate for their child and when literature is removed from shelves — like it is being removed from classrooms, not just classroom libraries, but classrooms as well. That choice is removed from not only that student, but the parents.”
Both women say they left the teaching profession last year, burned out and frustrated by the increasing stresses and political pressures they faced in the classroom.
For Johnston, seeing empty shelves and the removal of books like Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a memoir of surviving the Holocaust, were defining events sparking her activism.
“One of the biggest reasons we decided to do this is because as educators, we realize that literacy is declining, and so not having books, it doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “We really should be fostering this.”
Rebel Readers is ramping up just as the Duval County public school district is asking retired school librarians to come back part time, as it scrambles to comply with new Florida book laws that have taken thousands of books off library shelves.
Currently, every book in the Duval school district is being reviewed for violations of anti-pornography laws, along with the new Stop WOKE Act and the Parental Rights in Education Law, which bans instruction on gender or sexual orientation before third grade and in ways that aren’t “appropriate” in higher grades.
In addition to stocking the Free Little Libraries, Rebel Readers is reaching out to local schools, libraries and community members asking them to donate either books or funds.
Johnson and Raasio are working to register Rebel Readers as a nonprofit. Their Instagram page is @rebelreadersflorida.