Trouble in Censorville: Teachers and Librarians on Book Banning

Today is the publication date for Trouble in Censorville: The Far Right's Assault on Public Education--and the Teachers Who are Fighting Back, edited by Nadine M. Kalin and Rebekah Modrak, with a foreword by Jonathan Friedman, the Sy Syms Managing Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs, PEN America. It's the first publication from Disobedience Press, an imprint of Michigan Publishing.

An oral history, Trouble in Censorship collects the stories of 14 public school teachers and librarians who have been attacked by the current wave of book banners and recount how their personal and professional lives have been threatened and upended. "Their stories of frontline resistance... provide a battle plan for confronting censorship, rallying support, and mobilizing a grassroots defense of public schools."

One contributor is Martha Hickson, a librarian at North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, N.J., and 2023 New Jersey Librarian of the Year, who tells what it was like to be accused of "supplying pornography and grooming children." Here is her story:

The most recent episode--and please God let it be my last, but something tells me it won't be--began on September 28, 2021. I was eating my lunch and reading The New York Times Book Review when my principal entered my office, which he very rarely did. So, I knew this couldn't be good. He told me that he had heard a rumor that there was going to be a complaint about a book at that evening's school board meeting. (Afterward, I wondered if there really was a rumor or if someone had complained directly to him.) I said, "Oh, really? What book?" and he said, "Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe." I immediately pulled up the overwhelmingly positive reviews of the book and printed them out for him. I also gave him our selection criteria, our challenge policy, and the form community members are supposed to use to challenge a book.

Finally, I reminded him that having a fit at a board meeting is not the way to challenge a book--which he knew because he was involved in the 2019 situation--and I sent him on his merry way.

Ironically, this happened during the American Library Association's "Banned Books Week," the week in September when, since 1982, libraries, schools, museums, and bookstores around the country celebrate the right to read by acknowledging the fact that, over the years, certain titles have been repeatedly challenged. So, I had a display up for "Banned Books Week," as I have every year for the last 17 years.

I went home that night, said to my husband, "Something weird happened at work today," and we fired up the board meeting, live, on YouTube.

When the public comments started, I immediately knew I was gonna have a problem. A woman gets up and complains about two books: Gender Queer, which we'd had on the shelf since 2019 (it had zero circulations), and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, which I had checked out the day before. And which student did I check it out to? This woman's son.

The woman then started on a tirade about the books. She described both books as pornographic and obscene, claimed that they were being used to groom children, and she created the impression that I had foisted these books upon her child, which couldn't be further from the truth. Lawn Boy is a charming and lovely book about overcoming adversity. There's a scene in which the main character talks about a time when he was in the fourth grade and he and another fourth-grade boy experimented with each other sexually. I hate to tell people, but boys of every age touch each other's penises. It happens. I should point out that the book isn't about boys playing with their penises. As I recall, the woman read that passage out loud, taking one paragraph, at the most one page, totally out of context (as book banners always do) and making it appear that the whole book is nothing but 250 pages of fourth-grade boys touching each other's penises.

I refuse to believe she had read the book in the 24 hours since I checked it out to her kid. Regardless, she complained about the book, and then she complained about me. How dare I check this book out to her 16-year-old, et cetera, et cetera. Then, she referred to me as a "pornographer, pedophile, and groomer of children." She also referred to the board in the same language, after which several other community members got up to speak.

There was kind of a tag-team strategy: comments building upon comments, building upon comments. The man who came after her started complaining about particular books in our Banned Books Week display. The fact that this man had never even entered the library revealed that he'd enlisted his children in this effort. He was calling out books like Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin, and Being Jazz by Jazz Jennings. All of these books have to do with LGBTQ+ themes.

He was also incensed that I had a "Banned Book Week" contest, where I asked the kids to use the library catalog to figure out which of the top 10 banned books of that year we owned in our library (which was my way of getting them to practice using the library catalog). I had a prize drawing; the winner got a $10 Dunkin' Donuts gift card. He went ballistic, demanding to know, "Where does the money for the $10 gift card come from?" Things continued in that vein.

One of the phrases that he used during his comments was, "brought to you by North's very own librarian, Martha Hickson," thereby continuing the demonization of the library and the librarian. His concern was, "Why are they forcing these sexualized materials on our kids?"

A few speakers later, a woman who would eventually be elected to our Board of Education stood at the podium. She didn't have much of an argument other than to just vent and say, "What is this? It's not appropriate. It's not appropriate. It's inappropriate." She rambled, "Education is education. Basics. When I grew up, I didn't have any of these issues brought to my attention... I have a job to raise my children the way I feel fit. My children would not speak about religion, politics, social issues, in front of family or friends... We don't discuss those things. We're not hiding it from our children. It's not hiding. It's respecting."

At home, my heart is ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, damn near leaping out of my chest. I started experiencing all sorts of crazy panic-attack symptoms. Fortunately, I'm a member of a teacher's union. So, the very night this happened, as the meeting was going on, I was contacting the president of my union saying, "I'm gonna need help."

The union was my life support (along with my family, of course, and the broader library community). I reached out to all of my librarian peeps immediately, and they were incredibly supportive. I have a wonderful, wonderful library clerk I work with every day, Pat Stark. I couldn't have made it without Pat; she held me up.

I came into school the next day, expecting that the man who had stood in my office and said, "Oh, I heard a rumor," would be trotting right down to see me and talk about what happened the night before. No sign of him. Because I was a meeker, milder person back then, I thought, "Oh, well, the principal is a busy man. The library's not at the top of his priority list." Now, I'm like, "What was I thinking?" I should have demanded a meeting with the principal and an immediate investigation of the false charges made against me.

The day after that, the assistant superintendent showed up in the library and, in front of my coworkers and students, said, "You sure stirred up trouble. How did you pay for that Dunkin' Donuts gift card?" I told him, "I paid for it out of a $500 honorarium I received when I won the New Jersey Association of School Librarians' Intellectual Freedom Award." He muttered, "Okay," and left. That's the last time I ever spoke to that man. He hasn't spoken to me since that day.

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