What's It Like to Be the Target of A Book Banning Effort? School Librarian Martha Hickson Tells Her Story.

A New Jersey school librarian offers a revealing account of her experience at the center of an attempt to remove books from her library. She also presents ideas for the ongoing fight against censorship.

Martha Hickson
Photo by Bruce Wodder


Since the start of the 2021–2022 school year, school libraries have made more news than the fabled “Florida Man” meme, but for equally outrageous reasons. Spurred by a coordinated, conservative censorship campaign that has spread nationwide, news outlets have repeated lurid accusations against libraries and librarians as purveyors of child pornography.

The campaign came for me on September 28, when parents launched an attack on Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison at our high school district’s board of education meeting. Ironically—or perhaps intentionally—during Banned Books Week (BBW), the protesters called for the removal of both books from district libraries; accused BBW of promoting racism and homosexuality; and described me and the board as sex offenders who push pornography on students.

As I watched the meeting, my heart sank and my pulse raced. I knew from experience how contentious the coming battle would be. Two years ago, I fought an attempt by district administrators to restrict access to the graphic memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. That fight lasted eight months and became another full-time job.

Fortunately, come September, muscle memory kicked in. I began retracing the steps I had followed during the Fun Home conflict. While the board meeting was still underway, I alerted the American Library Association (ALA), the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, all of which offer online reporting tools. I reached out to my union for support and guidance. Using an advocacy alliance tool that I had developed during the Fun Home struggle, I connected with colleagues, parents, community members, clubs, and LGBTQ-rights, library, and other intellectual-freedom groups.

Over the next few weeks, the challenge spread, ultimately targeting five books: Gender Queer, Lawn Boy, This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and—despite its retention in 2019—Fun Home. Supportive community members revived the NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters site, a strategic tool launched during the Fun Home fight, repurposing it to communicate about the newly challenged titles.

At the same time, the pressure on me intensified. I received hate-filled email. Book banners attempted to file a criminal complaint with the local prosecutor’s office. Students who supported the book bans hid library books on LGBTQ+ topics so that others could not find them. And administrators peppered me with accusatory questions, such as “How can books with language like this be in our school?”

One day in October, while drafting a response to an angry parent’s email, I received an Open Public Records Act request from the district office for records related to the targeted books. As I researched that request, students from our school’s gay-straight alliance came to my office asking me to identify non-LGBTQ+ books that contained sexual content for use in a counterchallenge. Images of the library engulfed in flames sprang to mind as I thought of the many young adult books with sexual scenes, a topic of natural and necessary interest to teen readers. I suggested to the students that a more effective strategy for fighting the book ban would be for them to express to the board the personal significance of the challenged titles and the potential harm to readers if the books were removed.


Breaking point

When the students left my office, my chest was pounding. I felt overwhelmed. The school nurse found that my blood pressure had skyrocketed. With that, in addition to the sleeplessness, appetite loss, digestive distress, and anxiety that had plagued me since the September board meeting, I had reached the breaking point.

When my blood pressure remained dangerously high the next day, my physician ordered me to stop work, prescribed medication for anxiety, and referred me to a therapist for help managing stress. Defeated and at an all-time low, professionally and personally, I wept.

Ironically, that breaking point became the first step toward fighting with renewed vigor. Therapy sessions helped me see the situation more objectively and provided coping skills and tools. Physical activity helped, too. I burned not just energy but anxiety by walking every day and swimming at least three times a week.

Meanwhile, at the October and November board meetings, crowds came out to oppose book banning. Parents, educators, and medical professionals attested to the importance of the challenged books. But most compelling were the LGBTQ+ students who spoke passionately about the need for a school library that represents their lived experience.

With my doctor’s approval, I returned to work after Thanksgiving, and in early December attended the annual conference of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL), where book banning dominated discussion. Being surrounded by professionals who shared my passion for intellectual freedom boosted my morale.

READ: Anatomy of a Challenge: A Book Ban in Leander, Texas Presaged a Pattern of Challenges Nationwide

The NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters site published downloadable “Season’s Readings” holiday cards, which community members sent to the board, urging it to give students the gift of intellectual freedom.

At the same time, supporters and I began working with John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, whom I had met at the NJASL conference. With John’s guidance, we crafted new messaging; sent letters to the board requesting communication, transparency, and resolution; and spoke at the board’s January reorganization meeting to summarize our concerns. Using EveryLibrary’s platform, we planned a digital action campaign, which included an online petition and tools to capture respondents’ contact information.

While we hope these efforts will save all five books, ultimately our goal is to ensure that the district follows its stated reconsideration policies and processes rather than succumbing to pressure from a vocal minority.

The road ahead

As of this writing, the challenges are ongoing. Regardless of the outcome, the process has revealed opportunities for improvement:

1. Pay attention: The September challenge shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Had I been keeping up with the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s weekly newsletter, I could have spotted earlier challenges to Gender Queer and Lawn Boy in Texas and Virginia. Reading that newsletter and looking for patterns and trends is now part of my routine.

2. Strengthen criteria for challenge initiation: Our materials reconsideration request form requires little effort to complete and does not capture sufficient information from the challenger, making it too easy for people to raise an objection based on hearsay. A form that requires the complainant to read the entirety of the work and consult professional reviews (such as this from Fairfax, VA), as well as identify specific passages that violate selection criteria and state requirements (such as this from South Orange-Maplewood, NJ), would educate potential challengers and encourage them to think twice.

3. Revise the policy: Our district’s reconsideration policy has never been used or tested to this extent. Recommended revisions include:

Review composition of the reconsideration committee: As currently written, the policy makes it possible to “stack the deck” to achieve a desired outcome. For example, the policy does not specify inclusion of a student on the committee or the exclusion of participants who have stated prior opposition to the challenged title. The credentials of the proposed committee members should be vetted and approved by district administration, the teacher’s union, and student government.

Require deadlines, communication, and transparency: In the nearly four months since the current challenges began, there have been no status reports from the reconsideration committee, making it impossible for observers to determine compliance with policies and timelines. Just as the school board agenda includes monthly reports on the number and status of campus bullying incidents, it should also include a public report on the receipt and status of book challenges.

Prevent nuisance challenges: To prevent repeated challenges against the same book after a reconsideration decision is made, the policy should include a provision similar to that stipulated by the Lexington (MA) Public Schools (LPS): “... the District will not convene a Review Committee relative to the same complaint for a period of [three] years.”

Enforce return of challenged materials: Some of the book banners directed their children to check out the challenged books. Long overdue, those books have yet to be returned. A policy provision can restore access. “If an individual or a group undertakes action to keep material from the shelves by checking it out and failing to return it … the Superintendent shall request, in writing, the return of the material. If it is not returned within [30] days, a bill for the current replacement cost of the item shall be rendered to the party holding the item,” reads the LPS policy.

Formalize reporting requirements: Upon announcement of its decision, the board should publish a full report from the reconsideration committee, including the rationale behind the decision. The reports published by the Fairfax (VA) school district following their reviews of Gender Queer and Lawn Boy offer excellent models.


Our experience also underscored potential hazards ahead.

Demoralized library staff: The hostility of this challenge and personal attacks on librarians have affected library staff. Some may be hesitant to talk to students about books, create displays, and offer recommendations for fear of further backlash. Public support from district leaders can help restore confidence.

Pre-emptive censorship: In the wake of the 2019 attempt to ban Fun Home, the district assembled a committee to double-check the librarians, who were required to submit multiple reviews for every requested title. But the committee was deluged with paperwork, and the exercise abandoned. I expect, though, that increased scrutiny may return, leading to the possibility of pre-emptive censorship at the point of purchase. Continuing to communicate with administrators about the training, processes, and resources librarians use for collection development may forestall such interference.

Censorship beyond the library: The attacks on the library and librarian have generated fear among classroom teachers. Concerned that they may be next to be targeted, teachers may avoid controversial topics, limit discussion, or drop the use of certain texts. If the district demonstrates strong and consistent support of librarians, confidence may rise among classroom teachers.

Division within the school: Some staff believed parents’ false claims, supported banning of the books, and shunned me. Maintaining my professional demeanor and continuing to provide helpful services may repair some of those relationships.

As this list of opportunities and obstacles shows, even if the challenged books survive, much work remains. The battle does not end with a reconsideration decision. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, the war for students’ right to read “will never really be won because the price of freedom is constant vigilance.”

Martha Hickson is a New Jersey high school librarian and a 2020 recipient of the American Association of School Librarians’ Intellectual Freedom Award.

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