Martha Hickson, Students, and School Board Save 5 Challenged Titles

Censorship, Diversity, Education, School Libraries

At the January 25, 2022, board meeting for North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District in New Jersey, the school board voted on a reconsideration committee’s suggestions after five books in the district’s school libraries were challenged: Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe, This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel.

The committee voted to unanimously keep all of the books except This Book is Gay, which was recommended for removal based on a 2-4 vote. The board adopted the committee’s recommendations, but rejected the recommendation to remove This Book is Gay after hearing public comments.

All five titles now remain in the district’s school libraries, even with three board members abstaining from voting.

Martha Hickson
Martha Hickson

Award-winning intellectual freedom fighter Martha Hickson (school librarian at North Hunterdon High School) is no stranger to book challenges. These recent events, which included her own testimony during the school board meeting, showcase effective strategies for others to utilize during this wave of book censorship sweeping across the country. 

But this is not a simple story; victory was not inevitable. Board meetings and complaints throughout this process, which began last fall, inspired community members to organize, create, and update a website (NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters), as well as inspiring students to deliver testimonies during board meetings. 

In my next series of posts, I will share interviews with several of the students who are alumni or currently attend this school district who were willing to use their own voices to defend their intellectual freedom rights.

In this interview, Martha Hickson shares specific strategies she utilized to organize against unlawful book challenges.

1. Please explain what led you to develop the Advocacy Alliance Brainstorming Tool. How can librarians and teachers discover some of these resources in their communities?

I created this during the Fun Home challenge in 2019. No challenge is ever a one-person operation, and I knew right away that I would need to engage other interested parties to back me up. In the moment, I did some “back of the napkin” brainstorming to come up with a list of people and organizations I could reach out to. But being a librarian, I like to keep my work organized, so I fleshed out that “napkin,” and created the tool.

You don’t need to wait until a challenge happens to use it. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Think of it like a fire drill; you plan ahead so when an emergency arises you won’t panic. 

Building the list can be an ongoing process. Just keep your eyes and ears open … while you’re reading magazines, newspapers, and professional journals; while you’re watching the news or listening to the radio; when you attend conferences; while you’re talking to colleagues. What organizations are referenced? What names pop up repeatedly? Also think about people you know personally. What contacts and connections might they have? Once you start reaching out to potential allies, ask them if they know anyone else who can help.

2. How did you publicize the school board meetings in order to get students and alumni to attend and to speak?

During the 2019 Fun Home challenge a group of community members — the NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters (NHVIFF) — formed to help me. They included parents of students, members of my professional network, friends, and even some of my own family members who live in the district. When the current challenges emerged, we put the band back together, so to speak. The NHVIFF had an existing (but dormant) website and an email list that we dusted off. The NHVIFF sent out email reminders about the BOE meetings and asked recipients to spread the word.

Because the attack on the books also involved a personal attack against me, word got around the school pretty quickly. Some students and staff approached me shortly after the September board meeting to ask how they could help, and I also started getting emails from alumni who were concerned.

In addition, I was reaching out to institutional allies, such as the ALA OIF, NCAC, NCTE, CBLDF, and others to get eyes and ink on the situation.

Strangely, the pandemic actually proved to be an advantage, as the decisive board meeting in January moved to a virtual format when the Omicron variant surged. Distant alumni were able to participate via Zoom, which would have been impossible with an in-person meeting.

The whole effort really was a grass-roots operation, with community members. students, alumni, and staff sharing information with their friends and neighbors. 

3. Did you help the student speakers prepare? 

Yes and no. It depended on what the kids needed. Some students were fired up, knew exactly what they wanted to say, and how they wanted to say it. I didn’t get in their way.

Other students had ideas about what they wanted to say but wanted help with their message. So I listened to their ideas, took notes, and helped them package it. Or I just read their draft and gave them feedback about anything that wasn’t clear or suggestions for more persuasive wording.

Still other kids had nearly complete messages but wanted help with research or data to make their points more compelling.

And in some cases — like the statement from David Levithan — we had prepared talking points and needed a volunteer to deliver them.

4. Did anything different or unusual happen throughout these recent events compared to the challenges you’ve faced before?

This situation was absolutely next level in terms of the book banners’ scope and strategy. The two most unusual things were: the number of simultaneous challenges (five at once was overwhelming … I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what’s going on in Texas with 850 titles under fire) and the personal attacks against me (stunning and ultimately demoralizing when the BOE and administration did not refute the defamatory claims).

Over the years, there have been occasional complaints about library books, but those were individual parents objecting to a book’s content for their individual child. And even in those cases, the discussion was always around the book; it never turned into an attack on me. 

5. How do you handle opposition from fellow teachers and administrators, since many school librarians say they do not want to get involved because they fear the repercussions? 

I try to understand lack of involvement. This is a scary situation, and not everyone is cut out for it … I’m barely cut out for it. So I get that, especially if it’s a colleague without tenure.

But I try to help teachers realize that these attacks on intellectual freedom aren’t going to stop at the library. In the current environment, any classroom teacher can be the next person in the crosshairs. You can bet I’ll be there to support the teachers, and I truly appreciate those who supported me. Courage aside, they also took time from their lives to come out to board meetings during a pandemic. That’s a sacrifice.

It’s also important to remember that we have a union to help us fight. My local union president was incredibly supportive and even spoke at a BOE meeting to defend me. The union can be helpful in calling out and defending against any repercussions, too.

Sadly there were some staff who believed the defamatory claims … who actually thought that the books are pornographic … and who have shunned me. I can’t focus on changing their minds. I just need to keep doing my job and maintain my professionalism. If they change their minds one day, great. If not, they’re missing out on a great library and a dedicated librarian.

Click here to read the response of the NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters organization, applauding the board’s decisions. The NH-V Intellectual Freedom Fighters organization is now engaging in advocacy to have the school board publicly support Martha Hickson from defamatory statements made by a parent in September 2021, accusing her of criminal activity by adding certain books to the school library. Please read this section of the website, and click here to view a sample letter you can send to the school board.

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