Last year, a group of parents went to a North Hunterdon Regional High School Board of Education meeting and claimed the high school in Clinton was distributing pornography to children in the form of “evil” and “wicked” books, which they wanted banned, like it was fucking 1852.
Many of the books in question appear on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top Challenged Books of 2021 list—Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, Two Boys Kissing by David Levison… see a pattern here?
But the North Hunterdon HS librarian, Martha Hickson, refused to acquiesce, even in the face of persistent personal harassment and attacks from the aggravated/batshit parents. They called her a pedophile and a groomer. They wrote hate mail and threatened her. They went to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office and the Clinton Police Department and tried to get her charged. She was so traumatized by the ongoing assault that she had a breakdown, and developed an ulcer, cracked her teeth and started seeing a therapist and taking anti-anxiety medication.
“I had a physical, mental and emotional breakdown at work to the extent that my husband was called to take me home and take me to the doctor,” Hickson says. “And I went into the doctor’s office—I’ve seen this doctor for 25 years—and she took one look at me and said she didn’t recognize the woman in front of her.”
The community, including many students, rallied around her, showing up to subsequent Board meetings, and eventually, the Board struck down the motion to ban the books. Earlier this year, the ALA awarded Hickson the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity.
It was a victory in this bizarre, ongoing American culture war, but not one without collateral damage.
“For the most part, I’m doing much better,” Hickson says. “There are times when I don’t always feel safe, like walking in and out of the building, and there are times when—and I don’t want to trivialize people who have wartime experiences—but there are times when it’s almost like [PTSD] when I see some of these screaming people on TV, and it takes me back to the night when I was the target of it. Or even just this morning I was on the phone with a librarian form Morris County because I’ve been fairly open; many of them reach out to me when they are in distress. … It breaks my heart when I see others go through it. She’s at day one. She’s at the same stage I was in on day one. I’m hopeful that by giving them concrete strategies and knowing, here I am a year later, I’m still here, I’m still doing it, you can get there, too.”
Indeed, there have been challenges to books up and down the state in the last year. Hell, Proud Boys showed up at a school board meeting in Bernards Township last year. The battle over intellectual freedom rages on, and as we enter Banned Books Week (Sept. 18-24), the expectation is that challenges to books (and the asinine assault on knowledge) will continue, not only in the conservative corners of our country, but right here in Blue Jersey.
“This is the most important Banned Books Week I can remember and I’ve been doing this for 16 years,” says Will Creeley, legal director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which organizes Banned Books Week. “[Hickson’s] story is really interesting and worth telling. As she notes when she talks, she’s in blue New Jersey, where people think this is something that happens in red states far away. I think that no matter where you are, it’s incumbent to speak out.”
Jessica Trujillo, president of the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA), says book challenges have been seen more locally as opposed to statewide efforts as in other states.
“There have been some local challenges,” Trujillo says. “There are these nationwide organizations that give folks that are interested in banning books certain talking points and books to challenge in their local school districts. Even places like Westfield, which is a place you wouldn’t necessarily think of where book banners would come from because Westfield is an affluent community not seen as conservative.
“The challenges seem to be stemming from, right now, [titles] on sexuality, LGBTQ books primarily. We haven’t had as many challenges based on race as much as in other states, which is… something, I guess.
As we saw with the vandalism of Pride flags in Frenchtown last month, all it takes is one person to send bigoted waves out into a community. That’s not meant to equate requesting books be banned to committing crimes—the equivalency comes in the weight of the messages sent by those people who have an agenda. One person cutting a Pride flag, or a small group of parents calling a librarian a pedophile because they carry LGBTQ+-centered books carries an outsize effect in a small community.
“Folks like to feel as though they can exercise dominion over some small part of an increasingly dynamic world,” Creeley says. “So if you can exert your will and your beliefs in a way that feels tangible and important, the ultimate efficacy of your decision to ban books may not be the point any longer. There’s a symbolic political and cultural itch being scratched.”
“Literature provides windows to people to see people who are not like you, to see their humanity, to see their stories, and when you’re able to live an experience thats not your own, that breeds empathy,” says Trujillo. “I think people don’t want their children to have empathy for people who are different from them. That, to me, is a parenting choice. I tell my daughter, she’s 8, that my job is not to parent other children, it’s my job to parent you. We put that ownership on parents to have their parents choose books that are appropriate for them.”
The ALA counted 729 challenges to school, library and university materials in 2021, with 1,597 books targeted. Many of the books that appear on the top-ten most challenged list concern LGBTQ+ issues, and books by black authors, or which contain black characters or concern the black experience. On a micro level, sure, one person may have an issue with one or several of these books—there is heavy material in The Bluest Eye, and there is personal sexual exploration in Fun Home. But when put into this context, where it’s plainly obvious that LGBTQ+ and “black” books are targeted, it’s transparent that the issue is probably not the books, but the messages gleaned from them.
And, it also is obvious that there’s a concerted effort to target specific books.
“I think right now the energy is undeniably coming from the right, from social conservatives and I think that has been described in some ways pervasively as a top-down effort,” Creeley says. “It feels organized, it feels energized and it feels national in a way that differentiates it in many respects from the almost annual book bans that you would see spring up across the country in towns in year prior. This feels like something larger than a cadre of pissed-off parents trying to get books out of the system. Now we’re getting books pursued with a kind of intensity that seems renewed.”
Hickson says what struck her after the initial “outrage performance” at the initial school board meeting is that previous challenges to books—maybe three in her previous 15 years on the job—involved a limited set of parents and, critically a conversation.
“A complaint would come in via email or a phone call to the superintendent or principal, but a conversation would then happen with the parent, wherein we could learn more about what their concern was, and then talk about why the book exists in the library, what its literary merit is, whats is appeal is to other students,” Hickson says.
But when people came frothing to the 2021 Board meeting, Hickson did some research on the titles that were being questioned. It seemed odd to her that Lawn Boy and Gender Queer were in their sights.
“The next day I researched that and found the same combination of books had been objected to the week prior in Virginia and Texas. When I investigated those complaints, they were word for word the same performance we saw on Sept. 28. The same ambush tactics, the same manufactured outrage, the same books. The whole nine yards.
“This is a national movement that is being driven by political motives by people like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott,” Hickson continues. “They are sowing outrage for political gain and then there are activist groups like Moms for Liberty, CatholicVote.org, No Left Turn, that have their own social agendas that they want to put forth and mainly those social agendas have to do with people of color and LGBTQ people.”
Last month, Steve Bannon told (bizarrely) a “conservative Christian wireless company” (WTF?!) that, “The school boards are the key that picks the lock.”
“A school library is a particularly soft target because, for the most part, school libraries are one-person operations and for the most part, one-woman operations. So we’re pretty much sitting ducks when it comes to the school infrastructure. We don’t have a large department behind us, we don’t have multiples of us to rush to our defense.”
Hickson adds that many of the people challenging books haven’t actually read the books themselves. They may have read a Facebook post about it, but it’s much easier to galvanize a base around one page, or one line, from a long book than suggest they continue reading to gain the necessary context.
Like in Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel depicting Kobabe’s journey through sexual and gender identity. In Board meetings across the country, angry speakers pointed to, and/or showed, a page that depicts oral sex. This was shocking and/or evil because high school kids have no idea what oral sex is. Oh, wait.
Regardless, Hickson points out, if anyone bothered to understand the context, they might see the broader message of the scene.
“What nobody ever does is turn the page,” she says. “In this context, if you turn that page of that book Gender Queer, what you find is what happens next after that intimate moment that prompted that outrage they all freak out about is that Maia says, ‘I’m not comfortable with this, can we do something else?’ And they cuddle. What does that tell you in context? It tells the reader even in your most intimate moments, you have power, you have a voice, you have agency.”
There’s an odd, prescient precedent from more than 40 years ago for the current atmosphere around book bans. In New York, a group of parents went to a conference and came back with a list of books they wanted banned from school libraries, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Langston Hughes’ Short Stories by Negro Writers, claiming they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” The district removed the books, but students challenged it, saying, essentially, “Just because some people find them offensive, doesn’t mean you can take them from us and that they don’t hold educational value.” The case went to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in the students favor, but in a plurality, with seven different opinions from Justices, so the scope of the ruling remained (and has remained) unclear.
Of course, with the current Supreme Court, book bans could be viewed in a different light in the future—“It’s an open question what this court would do. We may find out. We may have occasion to find out,” Creeley says. And with the increased, galvanized efforts to ban books, there may be a case before them sooner rather than later.
A law in Missouri recently went into effect that requires librarians to certify that they are not stocking shelves with books that contain “sexually explicit material.” As you might imagine, the definition of what constitutes “sexually explicit” is broad and runs counter to the Supreme Court’s definition, Creeley says.
“You’ve got librarians on the hook for making sure every book in their collection doesn’t run afoul of this fairly vague standard otherwise they may face up to a year in prison. That just makes it impossible for a librarian to do their job. They have to review every damn book in the collection to make sure it’s not going to offend some reader.”
So, librarians pulled books from the shelves, like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—both unbelievable, educational, world-expanding books. The ACLU filed a suit against the school district in February, but a federal judge denied a request last month to end the temporary ban on these books while the lawsuit runs its course.
“In a cruel twist, the judge justified his holding by noting the ubiquity of information—it doesn’t matter if you can’t get it at a library, you can get it somewhere else. That may be true for some students, but it’s not true for all students, and it doesn’t mean the state is permitted to single out books based on their content or viewpoint. That’s not good enough. The First Amendment isn’t designed to protect only the information you can’t get anywhere else.”
Indeed, what seems to be missing from this clusterfuck is the agency of people to access books freely. We have one very loud side saying no one should read certain books (or at least obtain them for free), and we have, by necessity, communities, librarians and support agencies fighting back. Lost in it is the kid who doesn’t know who they are and could learn something from many of these challenged books; the adolescent of color who grows up in a majority white community and could use some damn context for their life; the adult who grew up or lives in a sheltered or abusive home that can learn something valuable from a book that might be banned.
It’s their right to access this information.
“The library is, I think, best envisioned as a sanctuary for the individual to figure out more about this big, weird world we inhabit in a safe and accessible way,” Creeley says. “This is a place where all Americans, no matter our faith, race, identity, political ideology should be able to come together peacefully to trade ideas. The beauty of a library is that it is the proverbial marketplace of ideas made real.”
“Imagine being the 15-year-old queer kid living in a conservative home,” Hickson says. They don’t have access to credit cards or transportation, and so when they go to get a book, “the Christo-Facsist behind the steering wheel is going to ask what are you going for and what did you check out? The only safe space of you is the school library.”
Hickson has seen the power that access to books provide first-hand over her years in the library.
“It is so valuable for kids of color, for kids that have a different sexual identity than the mainstream, to see themselves represented on the shelves,” Hickson says. “One of the callous claims by these protesters or the Board themselves,. is you can get the books somewhere else. They’re saying that from a position of privilege.”
It’s worth noting, albeit obvious, that the library is also valuable to white, cis-, straight people, too. And everyone else for that matter. Books share others’ perspectives and worlds with others, and instill in people a desire to learn more, to be more empathetic, to connect with others more deeply. And having a wide array of books, in various styles, speaks to a wide array of kids—Hickson says her own administration pointed to salty language in a book and questions why the book was in the library.
“They said to me things like, ‘How can we possibly have books in our school with things like this?’ Walk through the school cafeteria; you have kids who use language like this, and they deserve to have books with the vernacular they speak,” Hickson says.
In light of the events throughout the country regarding books, libraries in New Jersey, Trujillo says, are preparing for the possibility of more book challenges.
“It’s always stressful to have people who don’t see the value in what were providing for the community or don’t see the value in providing materials and services for people who are not like them because I think all libraries and all librarians, we want to serve our community first and foremost,” Trujillo says. “We want to provide a welcoming environment for everybody. It’s always stressful to have somebody challenge your basic work, your basic outlook on what services we provide. We’re creating networks of support for each other and we’re trying to find ways to come out and be a voice for the other parts of our community and rallying our local networks when we are facing some of these challenges.”
Hickson says she’s fielding calls from other librarians about how to address book challenges. She’s also speaking out at gatherings, and generally transitioning into an advocate for free speech. The last year, though, with its personal attacks and a less-than-supportive response from her school administration and Board of Education, has changed the way she views her day job.
“I am crawling my way to retirement,” Hickson says. “If I were younger in my career, I’d be looking to change jobs. It’s close enough that I can see it on the horizon and it’s kind of a situation where I can’t leave now. I would be putting too much at risk my future financial health, and I’m not about to let these people pick my pocket for the rest of my life. I continue to operate within this space, with those kids as my focus. And I continue to operate as a professional, and I have devoted my hours outside of work to intellectual freedom.”
Again, the effort to ban books speaks to a larger push to dictate American culture. In order to do that, one must be restrictive about information. At the risk of making a strawman out of the book-ban side (although it’s so damn easy), these are also many of the same people who lament cancel culture and who are currently losing their minds that Ariel is black and that The Little Mermaid is canon; American history not to be tampered with.
“My concern is far greater in the school library context where books are being pulled from shelves because they find themselves on a list of bad books that partisan actors are kicking around,” Creeley says. “That seems to me really un-American and egregious. I understand augments about age appropriateness, but I trust librarians. At a public high school library, those students are old enough to voluntarily receive information and check out books and look at books with a critical eye. And if parents don’t want students looking at books, that’s a job for the parent. That’s not a choice to make for every parent in the district by removing books ad hoc. That’s what really gets to me … and what should be profoundly unnerving for all Americans in our pluralist democracy.
“In this country we trust people to make up their own minds and I don’t want the state to dictate what I or my children can read because it offends some sensibilities of a few.”
Folks like you and I can support libraries by not only calling attention to book challenges and standing up for the librarians when they stand up against censorship—we can also just be patrons of our local libraries, Trujillo says.
“The biggest thing that we can use are supporters to come out, use our services, ask us questions, check out books and make sure that your local officials know how important the public library and their school library is to them and their community,” Trujillo says. “If we don’t have people using their services, it’s easy to dismiss how important we are, and if your local library has a friend group, please join it.
“People of all walks of life, economic standing, all races, all immigration statuses, everybody, every part of your community, everybody uses the library. It’s one of the last places where we honestly gather as a community, and to see it under attack is really disheartening.”
Hickson says the display for Banned Books Week in her library looks a little different this year. As opposed to placing a few books on a “banned” shelf, which is easy for detractors to denigrate as the “evil” corner, this year she’s found a more patriotic theme for the week that celebrates our right to information.
“This year, I have the Freedom to Read display,” Hickson says. “I brought in all of my Fourth of July decorations and it looks like Uncle Sam vomited in the library. I have flags all over the display.
If one wants to criticize the display, they’ll have to criticize, what, freedom? America? It’s a symbol for the culture of book challenges at large. If we can’t access speech in our public and school libraries, then how free are we really?
You can learn more about Banned Books Week, and how to support the efforts to fight censorship here and here. You can also check out everylibrary.org, uniteagainstbookbans.org and freadomusa.com.