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Standing Strong Against Censorship
Alumna and school librarian Martha Hickson MLIS’05 RC’82, who was targeted during a book banning protest last fall, discusses the power of books, those who suffer the most from censorship, and the reasons she still loves her job.
Alumna and school librarian Martha Hickson MLIS’05 RC’82, who was targeted during a book banning protest last fall, discusses the power of books, those who suffer the most from censorship, and the reasons she still loves her job.

Update June 21, 2022: The American Library Association has named Martha Hickson the recipient of its 2022 Lemony Snicket Prize. According to the ALA, the "2022 Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced With Adversity acknowledges the work of librarians who have gone above and beyond the normal requirements of librarianship to stand up in the face of adversity with dignity and honor, and to recognize the significant sacrifices and contributions that librarians make to improve the quality of life and their communities."

Lemony Snicket jury chair Becca Worthington said, "In the midst of adversity, [Hickson] has remained a firm advocate for first amendment rights and a proud defender of her students' right to read."

Hickson will receive the award on Sunday, June 26, 2022 at the American Library Association Conference being held in Washington, DC. More information is available in the ALA press release announcing Hickson's award. 

Book bans across the U.S. are on the rise. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, quoted in a February 10, 2022 article* in The Washington Post, said, “In terms of numbers, book challenges/bans in the past six months have been at their highest since the American Library Association began collecting information in 1990.”

New Jersey is not immune to these events. On September 28, 2021, during a meeting of the North-Hunterdon Voorhees Board of Education meeting, school librarian Martha Hickson MLIS’05 RC’82 found herself at the center of a protest when a group of parents attacked several books, including "Gender Queer," "Lawn Boy" (both recognized for excellence by the American Library Association’s Alex Award), and "This Book is Gay" (winner of the 2018 Garden State Teen Book Award), among others.

In the days following the meeting, protestors filed formal challenges to remove all three books from the district’s libraries, along with "Fun Home" (#3 on the New York Times list of “50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years”) and "All Boys Aren’t Blue" (a YALSA Teens Top 10 selection for 2021).

Three of the parents who spoke during the protest, which occurred during Banned Books Week, the annual event when libraries around the country celebrate the right to read, said the following:

“Disgusting! It’s wicked, it’s evil perversion!”

“… these books … highlight racism, sexuality, homosexuality, pornography, drug abuse, and other issues that have no place at a child’s school.”

“Those responsible for this disgusting material in our school should step down, be investigated, and charged accordingly.”

Hickson, targeted with defamatory comments during the protest, has been the school librarian at North Hunterdon High School for 17 years. She is a recipient of the AASL Intellectual Freedom Award for her work to defend “Fun Home” from a previous challenge in 2019. Those efforts also earned Hickson intellectual freedom honors from the NJ Library Association, the NJ Association of School Librarians, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

Her work has been featured in School Library Journal, Booklist, and Knowledge Quest.

While she was a SC&I graduate student, Hickson co-founded the Rutgers Association of School Librarians, the first student affiliate of the N.J. Association of School Librarians.

While the North Hunterdon-Voorhees High School Board of Education voted in January to keep all five challenged books, book challenges, censorship, and personal attacks on librarians and other information professionals are becoming increasingly common all over the U.S. How can library and information professionals be prepared to respond, mount an effective defense, and survive the personal toll?

Below, Hickson provides her insight and advice to assist and inspire students preparing for library and information careers, and her colleagues, to stand strong in the face of anti-intellectualism.

SC&I: You’ve mentioned that book banning protests are really not about the books, or the library/ information professionals the protestors are targeting. What are these protests about? What do the protestors want?

MH: Look at the titles, tactics, and tone of the objections that have occurred at school board meetings across the country over the last 6 months. You’ll see a recurring, scripted pattern, demonstrating that these aren’t ‘organic’ challenges springing from an individual parent’s concern about a single title. Add to that what we’ve seen in Texas, where a state representative compiled a list of 850 titles to be removed from school libraries. And in McKinney, Texas, a single household submitted 282 book challenges in one day. That’s more than have ever been submitted across the entire state in a year.

Rather than books, I think this movement is about fear, change, and control of the social, cultural, and political climate. The challenged books – which have been primarily titles featuring themes related to LGBTQ+ and BIPOC people – are a weapon to wage a proxy war against the rising visibility of those segments of our society. And attacking school libraries is an attempt to undermine confidence in public education, which is part of the agenda, too. It’s all leading up to the midterm election cycle and beyond, where power becomes the true prize.

SC&I: Please explain your belief in the power of books. What populations stand to lose the most from book banning and censorship?

MH: It’s almost become a cliché at this point, but Rudine Sims Bishop, the researcher considered the “mother of multicultural children’s literature,” said that books are windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. Books allow us to see new worlds, enter the imagination of the author, and reflect on our own lives. I see that every day in our high school library. Students get excited when they see their stories reflected in the pages of the book, when they connect with an author whose work speaks to them, and when they learn about new ideas they hadn’t even imagined themselves.

Beyond that, the library as a place makes a significant contribution to students. For some kids, the library, the library staff, and the library materials are their safe space in a hectic school environment. We’re an oasis of calm where everyone can feel welcomed. There’s no competition, no status, no fashion police. We’re happy to see every kid who walks in the door, and we help them make connections, whether that connection is with a book, a magazine, a board game, a jigsaw puzzle, one of us, a peer, or just our comfortable furniture. We want the kids to feel at home here. But when the book banners attack libraries and library staff, they make that home feel less safe and secure.

One of the book banners’ frequent arguments is that we don’t need the books in the school library because students can always get them at the public library or buy them on Amazon. That argument comes from a position of privilege. Put yourself in the shoes of the 15-year-old kid who needs information about their sexuality. To get to the public library, they’ll need transportation from a parent, who will ask why they need to go to the library and what they’re checking out. Same for Amazon. Whose credit card does the child use? Where is the book delivered? Like it or not, the job of adolescence is establishing a sense of self separate from one’s parents. Books – especially the high-quality materials curated by a trained professional in a school library – are a safe, free way to explore your interior life and the world at large.

So when school library books are censored, everyone loses. Censorship silences voices, erases life experiences, diminishes the culture, and consigns kids to questionable information sources. The kids who live on the edges of the dominant school culture bear the brunt of the damage. They are further marginalized when materials written for them are attacked or removed.

SC&I: Did SC&I prepare you to manage and survive a book banning/censorship effort?

MH: Most definitely. On top of the comprehensive education in youth literature and information theory, I think the most formative experience may have been during the final semester of my program, when I took the School Library Management class in conjunction with my field experience in a school library. As it happens, I did my field experience in the school where I was eventually hired and have worked for the past 17 years. That class required us to dig deeply into the school structure, demographics, budgets, and policies, so that by the time I was hired, I had a good working knowledge of the operation. Every time a complaint about books has come up in the last 17 years, I have been the only one in the room knowledgeable about the district’s selection and reconsideration policies. At this point, I’ve had to educate and remind several generations of administrators about that.

Further, SC&I gave me a network of talented librarians across New Jersey on whom I can rely. I’m still in touch with the librarians I went to school with, and through them I’ve met dozens more terrific librarians in New Jersey and beyond.

Also while at SC&I, several fellow students and I founded the Rutgers Association of School Librarians, the first student affiliate of the NJ Association of School Librarians. That platform enabled us to get our feet wet in a leadership role and learn the value of being an active member of our professional organizations, which have been an invaluable resource during these book challenges.

SC&I: You are a recipient of the AASL Intellectual Freedom Award. What advice do you have for SC&I students and alumni for ways to stand strong in the face of anti-intellectualism?

MH: First, don’t go it alone. That mindset can be tough for school librarians because we’re used to being sole practitioners, and we’re usually the problem-solvers for everyone else. But there’s no shame in asking for help. Reach out for support to the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Council of Teachers of English, EveryLibrary.organd the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, all of which have online forms to make it easy to report your case. Also get in touch with your local library organizations at the county and state level. For me that was the Hunterdon County Library Association, the NJ Library Association, and the NJ Association of School Librarians. And don’t forget school and community partners, including your union, your colleagues, parents, clubs, organizations, and most importantly students. People will want to help; you just need to tell them what you need.

Second, but equally vital, is self-care. These battles are intense and draining. If your mental, physical, and emotional well-being take a hit, you’ll have a tough time continuing the fight or even managing your day-to-day life. Be sure to sleep, eat well, get physical activity, and seek professional help if you need it.

And finally, keep it all in perspective. You might not win every censorship battle, but the experience of fighting for students’ right to read will help you improve policies and processes, and you’ll gain valuable experience for the next challenge or to help the next librarian.

SC&I: Do you still love your job despite the incredible stress you have experienced?

MH: I’m not going to lie. During the darkest moments over the last six months, I have fantasized about striking it rich in the lottery, packing up my desk, and whistling ‘Take This Job and Shove It’ on my way out. But when the kids walk through the door every morning, that daydream disappears. The questions kids ask, the goofy things they say and do, their creative talents, their energy, their potential … it makes me smile every day and reminds my why I chose school librarianship in the first place. It all comes down to the students.

To learn more about the events at North Hunterdon High School, see:

NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters

School Library Journal: What’s it Like to Be the Target of a Book Banning Effort? School Librarian Martha Hickson Tells her Story.”

February 3, 2022

School Library Journal: Courage is Contagious: Martha Hickson’s Story is the Inspiration That we Need

To read more of Martha’s recommendations, tips, and tactics for how school librarians and other information professionals can prepare for being the center of a book-banning effort, see her articles:

Trade Secrets: Surviving Censorship in the School Library

OR

Lawn Boy and Gender Queer: The Trend Toward Book Challenges

*The Washington Post article quoting Caldwell-Stone is This wave of book bans is different from earlier ones,” written by Valerie Strauss.

 

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