10 Years After a Challenge: An Interview with Johanna Freivalds

Banned and Challenged Books, General Interest

By: Valerie Nye

How are librarians’ careers impacted when they experience a significant material challenge in their library? I decided to ask some librarians about their careers following a challenge. I contacted librarians who experienced a challenge in their library 10 or more years ago, and asked them some questions about their career paths. The following is an interview with Johanna Freivalds at the Eileen Johnson Middle School in Lockwood, Montana.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker
“The Vanishing Hitchhiker” was one of the books pulled from the Lockwood middle school library.

VN: From the articles I have seen, it looks like there were several incidents when books were challenged in the middle school library in 2005 and 2006. Will you briefly describe what happened?

JF: The whole incident started innocently enough, with a student getting excited and checking out a library book on urban legends. The student’s parent looked at the book that night and took exception to its language and sexual references. The parent brought the book to school, making a complaint to the principal and school superintendent. After several discussions about the library’s urban legend books (one which had been in the library since 1982) and our school’s culture of accommodating and being responsive to parents, the superintendent, loosely following school policy, directed me to pull two books from the collection because “they did not meet the curricular expectations of our district.”

VN: What were the titles of the books pulled?

JF: Alligators in the Sewer and 22 Other Urban Legends by Thomas J. Craughwell and The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand.

VN: Were these books eventually returned to the library?

JF: Sadly, no. I was directed to discard the books by administration because “they did not meet the curricular expectations of the district.”

VN: What happened following the removal of the books?

JF: Ultimately, in our rush to be accommodating and not follow our established reconsideration policy to the best of our ability, a group of parents became interested in purging the library of all “offensive” materials, beginning a systematic search for materials they felt fell in this category. They eventually found Mavis Jukes’ The Guy Book: An Owner’s Manual (a guide to sexual health geared toward teenage boys). Several parents were outraged about the book’s frank discussion of sexuality, publicly calling me a “purveyor of pornography.” Following lengthy discussions and closely adhering to our school’s reconsideration policy, the principal, the superintendent, and then school board all eventually voted to keep the book based upon its educational merit despite numerous appeals for its removal from the library collection.

VN: What changes occurred at the school and/or in the district because of the challenge?

JF: Following the final decision to retain the challenged book, our superintendent worked closely with district librarians to overhaul our school’s reconsideration policy. Our policy was changed to reflect best practices and establish an appointed review committee made up of parents, teachers, librarians, and administrators. Our updated reconsideration policy specifies a very specific chain of progress, timelines, and make-up of the reconsideration review committee. (The updated Collection Development Policy can be found on page 72 of this document and the Procedure of Dealing with Challenged Materials can be found on page 75.)

VN: Are you still working at the middle school library in Lockwood? If so, what is your position in the library/school? If not, where are you currently working and what is your position?

JF: This is my 21st year working at Lockwood school. I have been fortunate enough to be the middle school librarian for 20 years of that time. I love being a middle school librarian and working with middle school-aged students.

VN: Have you experienced other challenges to material since the incidents in 2006? If so, can you briefly describe those situations?

JF: While there have been numerous discussions with students and parents about the content of library materials and what is a good fit for specific students, no other books have been submitted for the reconsideration process since 2007.

VN: Have the challenges change the way you “do business” as a librarian? If so, can you explain how?

JF: Working my way through the lengthy book challenge process over those years made me more deliberate about materials selection — which is to say, more deliberate in serving my readers’ needs while also choosing not to second-guess those choices. I think a pretty common side effect of going through a very public book challenge is one can tend to become hyper-vigilant to “possible” areas of controversy. I did not want that mindset to adversely affect the materials considered for inclusion in the library.

Materials selection is about trying to best serve your reading community and in the case of working with young student readers, being more diligent in articulating and reminding those students that it is up to them to follow their family guidelines on what may or may not be viewed as appropriate reading materials.

Serving middle school-age readers can be especially challenging in this area, due to the wildly differing maturity levels one finds at these ages.

VN: How have the challenges had an impact on your career?

JF: The process of going through a book challenge while also living in this relatively small community was one of the hardest, yet rewarding things I’ve experienced in my career. Working through a challenge really brings a person up to their best professional game. This challenge played out at length in the media and on several occasions became quite personal in nature. Having one’s professional judgments publicly called into question is not something most teacher are prepared for, or face very often in their career, but when it happens, it can become an opportunity for deep reflection on one’s personal and professional bedrock; it tempers a person and makes it easier to express the really important things. Being able to strongly disagree with someone without being disagreeable is truly a life skill.

VN: I see you won the Pat Williams Intellectual Freedom Award in 2007, given annually by the Montana Library Association. Can you tell me about the award?

JF: Being awarded the Pat Williams Intellectual Freedom Award has been a highlight of my career as a teacher/librarian. I was grateful and humbled to be awarded this honor by my peers. Receiving the award served to refocus and hone my attention on the needs of younger readers. The award was a much appreciated show of support from the library community for my part in the effort to ensure students’ access to information, regardless of their age.

I received the Pat Williams award for my part in the defense of First Amendment principals in the face of a serious book challenge. Typically the award is conferred upon an individual or group who has made significant contributions during the year to the enhancement of First Amendment rights, or upon an individual whose body of work over time has made significant contributions to the enhancement of intellectual freedom.

VN: Are you involved in any intellectual freedom initiatives?

JF: I’m not currently involved in intellectual freedom initiatives but served on Montana Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, until I termed out, from 2009-2015. I make an ongoing effort to support others who find themselves facing challenges and occasionally speak with students of library science and other school librarians about the importance and ramifications in defending access to information to our youngest citizens.

VN: Thank you for sharing your story, Johanna.

If you have a story you would like to share about a challenge and/or a censorship issue that has impacted your career, contact Val Nye at valnye@gmail.com.


Valerie NyeValerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations; recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books including: True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking on lakes. You can contact her at valnye@gmail.com


One thought on “10 Years After a Challenge: An Interview with Johanna Freivalds

  • Thanks for this interview, Johanna and Valerie. It’s really interesting, important, and somewhat rare to hear how a book challenge case played out, and how it impacted those involved.

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