After Her Book Displays Drew Criticism, Librarian Elissa Malespina Lost Her Job. She's Here to Say "I'm Not OK with This."

Elissa Malespina lost her job last spring after a performance review, which cited her book displays on race and LGBTQ themes. The 23-year veteran educator shares her experience to counter censorship and help fellow librarians know they are not alone.

Elissa Malespina was shelving books in the library at her new school. She started with the biography section, arranging titles to make the shelves more appealing to students at Union (NJ) High School, where she is the new school library media specialist.

Barack Obama. Rosa Parks.

She paused and debated which book to select next.

“I better go with Colin Powell,” she thought. “Because then it's a more conservative approach.”

That decision was not wrong, says Malespina, but the creeping doubt is new.

“I start to question—how balanced do I need to make these displays?” she says. “I'm always in my head now, questioning my thoughts and how I do things, realizing that if I put up that sign, I can face backlash because of it.”

This is a chilling effect of censorship and attempts to pull books and other content from school libraries and the classroom.

“You're now really starting to think, ‘Should I be purchasing this book? Am I willing to have that fight? If this book gets challenged? Do I have the policies in place that they're gonna back me up about this book?” says Malespina.

In SLJ’s May 2022 Controversial Books Survey, 97 percent of respondents said they had considered the possible negative consequences and pushback when making book purchase decisions.

“When you're hit with these challenges, it's a lot,” says Malespina. “You start to wonder, ‘Is it worth it for a book?’ I believe it is, but I can understand how others don't.”

Since that Controversial Books poll was fielded in the spring, censorship attempts and their impact on educators have only increased. In Oakdale, NY, a teacher was forced to take down a Pride flag. In Oklahoma, a teacher was suspended and then resigned after sharing the QR code with students for Brooklyn Public Library’s “Books Unbanned.” Photos on social media show classroom bookshelves covered or turned around toward the wall as educators worry something on their shelves will get them in trouble.

Malespina counts herself among the casualties in the targeted effort to cull LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC books in schools.

An unexpected evaluation

In her third year at the school and 22nd as an educator, Malespina went for her annual evaluation in April 2022 at Verona (NJ) High School, where she served as teacher librarian and technology coordinator. She expected it to be another positive report as she had received the previous two years. Instead, the review—which was shared with SLJ—offered multiple criticisms including:

“Mrs. Malespina does a nice job with creating collections for display about equity, specifically regarding the themes of race and LGBTQ. However, the selections never seem to go beyond those two topics. This has created the perception that the library is about only two things and not necessarily about promoting a variety of different books centered around a variety of different topics. Although it is difficult to say, this may be why the number of books that are checked-out of the library is not as high as might be expected. This approach to library displays creates a student space that is not inclusive enough to a wide variety of topics such as sports, politics, health, science fiction, graphic novels, etc. In order to create positive interactions with students and parents the space has to be a hub for events and a space that promotes a variety of topics and interests. It is recommended that there is a reflection on what the space is for and how it can be better utilized to serve the student and broader community .”

In the review’s conclusion, the principal said he would not recommend that the school bring Malespina back for the next school year.

“As a nontenured educator in the state of New Jersey, I can be let go for whatever reason they may make up, and I have almost no recourse in the matter,” says Malespina, who disputes the circulation claim, arguing that it was actually up significantly from the year before. “I understand that and acknowledge that there were other reasons listed for my removal, along with the fact that I displayed books about race and LGBTQ+ themes. But none of the other reasons ever led to me being disciplined or even spoken to about them.”

Her past reviews were always positive, she says, and she had a good relationship with students and fellow staff members.

“I got along very well with all the students and teachers in the district, including those who had different political views than myself,” says Malespina. “I got along rather well with the students and wrote several recommendations for college and scholarships. I had many reach out to me after I left to tell me how I made the library a safe space for them where they always felt welcome.”

Championing inclusivity and creating a welcoming atmosphere for all students is not new for Malespina.

“She was always a very warm and welcoming individual who made sure that the library was a safe space for all students,” says Christian Fuscarino, a student of Malespina at Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ, about 15 years ago. “School spaces were very different than they are now—not to say that it's not still incredibly challenging for LGBTQ students now, but we are going back to a time when gay straight alliances, which are now often referred to as gender sexuality alliances, were a relatively new concept.”

As a student, Fuscarino was selected by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network to go around the country and help students create GSAs at their schools. At the time, just researching how to organize and help LGBTQIA+ students was difficult. Schools had blocks on information that included the words “gay” and “lesbian,” says Fuscarino.

“I remember very specifically sitting in the library at Columbia, trying to pull up information about gay straight alliances on the computer, and it being deemed inappropriate content for the students at that school,” says Fuscarino, who is now executive director of Garden State Equality, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization in New Jersey. “To have a librarian that was conscious of the fact that information like that was not readily available, she went above and beyond to ensure that I could find books and other resources to assist me as a young LGBT student organizer.”

Fuscarino says he worries about the LGBTQIA+ kids at Verona High School in light of Malespina’s dismissal.

“If educational resources can even be put on display, what kind of environment is that school district creating for the LGBTQ students to feel safe to be themselves?” he says.

The ripple effect

Verona principal Joshua Cogdill declined to speak with SLJ, writing in an email that the district “doesn’t discuss employees or former employees.”

The lack of transparency and discussion doesn’t help the situation, says Richard Wertz, a math and computer science teacher at the school for nearly 20 years and a resident of Verona.

“The school board can’t answer [questions] and the administration can’t answer any questions for anyone about anything, because it's a personnel matter,” says Wertz. “But kids, high school kids especially, have great BS filters, and they can put two and two together and figure out what's going on.”

All of this gives pause to educators, who are forced to consider efforts toward equity and inclusion, free speech, and diverse materials, and if their actions in serving students could leave them vulnerable to punishment and job loss. And not just in the library.

“I think the overall impact in situations like this is that it's going to have a chilling effect—especially if you're a social studies teacher or any humanities teacher that wants to present lessons that are relevant to kids and the world that they live in. This is going to give a lot of teachers and also administrators and students pause,” says Wertz. “This is going to chill the young teacher that might be on the cusp of tenure or maybe even as tenure mentees, they're gonna think, ‘Well, why should I take that risk?’”

Malespina’s dismissal was “especially disappointing for staff members who have been invested and are sort of sensitive to the issues of underrepresented kids and in majority white Christian districts like ours,” Wertz says.

He calls Verona a “purple” town, with progressive Montclair on one side and the more conservative Caldwell on the other. Just as in other towns across the country, a small vocal group of parents voiced their opposition to books about race and LGBTQIA+ communities.

Wertz says he never heard a staff member or student criticize Malespina in her time at the school.

The typically outspoken Malespina did not go public with her story at first.“I was ashamed, I was scared, I was hurt,” she says. “So I was quiet for a while.”

Privately she reached out to her professional network and friends. The first call went to fellow school librarian Martha Hickson (

“Martha was a huge help, because she fully understood what was going on,” says Malespina.

Hickson, who sought support during a difficult book challenge at her school, mapped out a plan for Malespina that included seeking medical care. At the advice of her doctor and union, Malespina went on medical leave for the rest of the school year.

As she managed her stress after her dismissal, Malespina also needed a job. She focused on that task at hand, eventually landing a new position in Union.

Despite successfully continuing her school library career, she wants to tell her story now and spotlight the impact decisions like what happened to her can have on staff and students, and help fellow librarians facing the same doubts, decisions, and possible consequences.

“I study restorative justice, and my professors always talk about ‘How do you use your power and influence to help others?’” Malespina says. “I need to do that. I don't want to sit quietly by and allow this to happen, because then it's allowed to continue. Is it probably going to continue [anyway]? Yes, but at least I can say that I've done what I can to try to help people, to add my voice to the choir that says, ‘I'm not okay with this.’”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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