On a rainy afternoon at Books & Books in Coral Gables, eight people pulled up some chairs in a corner by the cafe.
An English teacher, an aspiring author, an independent audio producer — they were all there to talk about banned books, to dig into tone and imagery and context. And they were there because of 16-year-old Iris Mogul.
“I'm really excited that all of you guys are here!” Iris said. “It means a lot.”
Mogul, a junior at the Academy for Advanced Academics, says she founded the Banned Books Club because she wanted a place to dig into authors like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison — and she didn’t know many people her age who read for pleasure.
“I just want to start with reading books and discussing why they're banned and what we think of that. Which for me, I know I don't like censorship,” she said.
Some of the people who showed up said they were pleasantly shocked by how young she is. Iris got the conversation flowing quickly.
“So I have a little activity planned. In this little baseball cap, there's some book covers, and then book title, author of very frequently famous banned books,” she explained.
The group took turns pulling slips of paper out of the hat and then passed it on.
“I’ll start,” she said. “Here we go. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I feel like that’s on all the lists I read of banned books.”
There was 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – books that have been challenged in schools across the country.
Policymakers — especially in Florida — have been taking steps to limit access to books about controversial topics, like race or sexual orientation.
Some of Iris’ friends came out to the meeting to support her, like Gia Cabrera, who’s in 12th grade at Coral Gables Senior High School.
Iris says in a way, Gia helped make this book club possible.
“You got me back into reading,” Iris told her friend. “Because you were always talking about how you were reading. I was like, 'Wow, she has her life together.' Then I was like, 'I'm gonna start reading.' I always thought reading was lame. And I looked up to you and I saw you reading. And then I was like, 'Wow, I can be cool and read?'”
“You’re inspiring me!” Gia told her. “I'm so proud of you for doing this! Like, this takes work.”
“I can’t believe you think it’s lame though!” Gia said with a laugh.
The club's main task for the night was to decide on a first book. Iris threw out some options: The Bluest Eye, A Streetcar Named Desire, Running With Scissors, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Ultimately, the club settled on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The Florida writer and anthropologist died in obscurity but is now recognized as a signature voice of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Awesome. I'm excited,” Iris said. “All of them are on my reading list. Can't go wrong.”
But the conversation didn’t stop there — no one seemed to want to leave. So they did what readers do — they talked about what’s on their nightstand.
“I'm reading When We Make It, said Tanya Malave. “It's about this girl, Nuyorican girl growing up in Brooklyn. I'm from New York so I gravitate towards it.”
Malave says she moved to South Florida for school but a part of her heart is still up North.
“I would love to go back. I miss New York,” she said. “But my husband loves Miami. So here is home.”
Another member of the group piped up, saying maybe this group will become another reason for her stay.
“Now we have a book club!” said Tobias Barrios.
“Yeah! Now we have a book club!” Malave said.
“Now you have ties!” Iris told her.
Barrios opened up to the group too.
“I always feel a little bit intimidated by being around intellectual people with my second language,” he told them. “That's why I feel so happy right now because it's the first time that I'm going to be talking in English about books.”
This was just a meeting without a book, but already the group was sharing their stories and finding connections.
If you go:
What: Banned Books Club
Where: Books & Books 265 Aragon Avenue Coral Gables, FL 33134
When: The last Thursday of every month at 6 p.m.