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Alumna Who Fought Book Ban as School Librarian Receives National Award

Martha Hickson
Martha Hickson organized a defense for keeping several award-winning books with LGBTQ+ themes on the library shelves at North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, NJ.
Nick Romanenko

Martha Hickson received 2022 Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity for her fight against censorship

When protestors targeted a school board meeting last fall demanding that several award-winning books with LGBTQ+ themes be pulled from the shelves, school librarian Martha Hickson didn’t back down, even when the attacks turned personal.

Despite being falsely labeled a sex offender, receiving hate mail, being the target of vandalism, and having her judgment and integrity questioned, Hickson organized a defense for keeping the books – Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson – on the library shelves at North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, NJ.

She galvanized a group of community allies to attend school board meetings, gathered testimonies from LGBTQ+ students, recruited author David Levithan to write a statement of support, and even consulted and offered advice on censorship battles to the library community at large. In January, the board voted to retain all five books.

For her fight against censorship, Hickson, who holds both a master’s degree from the School of Communication and Information (SC&I) and an undergraduate degree in English from Rutgers College, received the 2022 Lemony Snicket Prize. Sponsored by Daniel Handler, who under the pen name Lemony Snicket wrote the popular children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events, the award recognizes librarians who have gone above and beyond the normal requirements of librarianship to face adversity with dignity and honor. Hickson received the award on June 26 during the American Library Association Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, DC.

“For school librarians across the country, this year of book challenges and personal attacks has truly been a series of unfortunate events worthy of the title The Lambasted Library,’’ Hickson said. “I am both humbled and grateful to accept the Lemony Snicket Prize on behalf of librarians everywhere who steadfastly defend the right to read.”

Earlier this spring, Hickson spoke about her work combating censorship and previous honors which included receiving the 2020 American Association of School Libraries Intellectual Freedom Award.

School libraries have been facing high profiles censorship challenges across the country. What are these protests about? What do the protestors want?

Look at the titles, tactics, and tone of the objections that have occurred at school board meetings across the country over the last six 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.

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

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.

What advice do you have for SC&I students and alumni for ways to stand strong in the face of anti-intellectualism?

First, don’t go it alone. 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.org, and 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. 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 takes 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.

Do you still love your job despite the incredible stress you have experienced?

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 me why I chose school librarianship in the first place. It all comes down to the students.